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Waiting For The South African October?

By Shaun Whittaker

26 August, 2013

At the recent Neville Alexander Memorial Conference, Pallo Jordan, a prominent member of the African National Congress (ANC), presented the keynote address entitled ‘Waiting for October’. Jordan’s title, taken from Leon Trotsky’s letter to the Workers’ Party of South Africa (WPSA), implied that South African Trotskyists – as embodied by Alexander – ineffectually waited for a social revolution, while it was the Congress Movement that actually engaged in struggle and overthrew the apartheid regime. This reasoning epitomizes the on-going and wide-spread misrepresentation of the South African Left. So, to mark the anniversary of Alexander’s death on 27th August, it is perhaps appropriate to set the historical record straight.

Black Consciousness and Congress Movement

The watershed event in contemporary South African history, i.e. the youth uprising of 1976, was undoubtedly inspired by the Black Consciousness (BC) movement. Nelson Mandela even acknowledged, though euphemistically, that Steve Biko was ‘the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa’. Biko, of course, lit up the inextinguishable fire of liberation for an entire generation to not only shatter the shackles of a slave mentality, but to also rise up in enormous numbers against the apartheid regime. The liberating values of the BC movement of self-pride and self-reliance undeniably played a pivotal role in the creation of many layers of political activists and the blossoming of mass organizations throughout the country. It was indeed the BC movement that laid the solid groundwork for the country-wide mobilization against the tri-cameral parliament and the total discrediting of the apartheid regime. A respondent to Jordan, Lybon Mabasa, the president of the Socialist Party of Azania (SOPA), reminded the Conference that it was the National Forum (NF) that produced and distributed four (4) million copies of the legendary pamphlet against the tri-cameral parliament and the Koornhof Bills throughout the length and breadth of the country. This, of course, was hardly the actions of a Left waiting vainly for the South Africa October to occur. In fact, the apartheid parliament was never accepted by the oppressed and the mobilization against it represented a tremendous victory. And, this laid the basis for the revolutionary situation that existed in the mid-1980s in parts of the country. As much as the Congress Movement would be loath to concede to this, it was this underpinning that the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Congress Movement (CM) benefited from.

So, what transpired during the seminal year of 1983? The NF was formed in June 1983 as a united front of 267 organisations of the radical, black consciousness and socialist political streams. The UDF was initiated three months later, in August 1983, as a popular front of the liberal-democratic, non-racial and non-sectarian political current. The political differences between the NF and the UDF were initially of a non-antagonistic nature. For a former Robben Island prisoner, Marcus Solomon, for example, it was a principled choice not to split the Woodlands Civic Association of which he was a member. That civic formation took a democratic decision to join the UDF, which was at the outset a non-sectarian front of 700 civic structures. Solomon’s comrade, Alexander, on the other hand, belonged to the Lotusriver Civic Association, that was affiliated to the Cape Action League. Indeed, the stance taken by political activists like Solomon was an expression of democracy in action. In 1991, Solomon joined up again with Alexander in the Workers’ Organisation for Socialist Action (WOSA).

Alas, as the ANC played a negligible part in the 1976-uprising and the mass mobilizations against the tri-cameral parliament and the Koornhof Bills, it eventually commandeered the UDF and, in this political context, it supposedly became a non-racial formation (only) in 1986 when so-called non-Africans (including the descendants of the Khoisan!) could be voted onto the central committee of that multi-racial organization. In practice, with ANC dominance, the UDF swiftly lost its non-sectarian and non-racial character. The initiative for the UDF apparently came from people in the Congress Movement like Pravin Gordhan and Trevor Manuel, who were ultimately amongst the chief implementers of neo-liberalism in post-apartheid South Africa. And, of course, this neo-liberalism is the actual legacy of the UDF and the ANC. Whatever the case may be, the ANC’s Operation Vula suggests that the organization was essentially absent and was unsuccessful in setting up any organized leadership structure inside the country until almost the late 1980s. Does this mean that it was the ANC that played the waiting game? Perhaps this clarifies how come the ANC failed to engage in any significant form of armed struggle!

From the outset, the UDF obtained huge funding from the Scandinavian governments and churches, and enjoyed substantial backing from the ‘white’ liberal section – including big business and the liberal media. This was unquestionably the key reason for its ability to marginalise the NF. The mid-1980s were also the most violent period ever in South African history. The death squads of the apartheid regime targeted thousands of the most radical activists, while the political activists of the UDF/CM were determined – often violently - to sideline the NF.

For the historical record, the Unity Movement – an organisation that, over many decades, produced outstanding activists and whose political ideas remain influential – also held a preliminary conference in December 1983 (but only formally launched the New Unity Movement in April 1985).

Alexander and Biko

The president of SOPA was moved to state unequivocally at the Conference that Alexander cannot be held accountable for Biko’s death. It appears that a deliberate misinformation campaign is spreading the rumour that Alexander contributed to – or was even responsible - for the death of Biko. Now, it goes without saying that this is extremely serious and it is, once again, vital to correct the historical picture. Firstly, Biko did not plan to only meet with Alexander in the Western Cape and – according to Armien Abrahams – Alexander informed Biko in advance to cancel the meeting before he had even left King William’s Town. Referring to Biko, Abrahams confirmed that: ‘(L)ong before he planned this fateful trip I advised on Neville’s instruction to cancel the arranged meeting’. Secondly, Alexander’s main concern was that he did not have a political mandate from his political comrades to meet with Biko. This was in keeping with Alexander’s principled politics. It should be highlighted that if Alexander had met with Biko it would have been easy for the apartheid security police to show that he had broken his banning order and that he would have ended up for another five years in prison - which would not have served much of a purpose. There is certainly nothing to romanticise about being tortured by security police. Nevertheless, Alexander was certainly needed outside prison and without a doubt played a leading part in the dissemination of leftist ideas during the mass mobilizations. This in due course contributed to the radical upsurge of the 1984-86 juncture which was, in the final analysis, the primary impetus for the political negotiations. Indeed, despite the propaganda, Alexander had nothing to do with Biko’s death and, on the contrary, regarded him as a comrade. And perhaps the real issue concerns the lack of political will to have Nuremburg-type trials even for those security police who were really responsible for Biko’s death.

If anything, Alexander appeared to have been consistently harassed. At Matthew Goniwe’s funeral in Cradock, for example, Alexander was directly threatened that he would be dealt with for writing so critically about the ANC by a well-known leader of that political organization in the Western Cape today. The irony of this happening in Alexander’s hometown is truly remarkable. Soon after the formation of the Anti-Privatisation Forum in July 2000, as another illustration, the modest Alexander family home in Lotusriver was fire-bombed twice and the family was compelled to put in place prison-like security measures. Who petrol-bombed the house and turned it into another prison? This was a constant pattern as, in the run-up to the ‘94 elections, the administrator of WOSA was car-jacked and, on a separate occasion, her car was tampered with in an attempt to cause an accident.


A long list of people smirks about the Workers’ List Party (WLP) only getting 4 169 votes in the 1994 elections. For, they assume that a liberal-democratic election is a neutral event that takes place above and outside power relations. Is this really the case? What emerged during the ‘94 elections? The electoral commission acknowledged that the far-right sabotaged their computer system and that the final number of votes made public was negotiated. The most pertinent aspect of this is to reflect on what the role of the ANC leadership was in that charade. Was there a deliberate attempt to marginalize the left-wing? In order to register for the ‘94 elections, political parties needed to gather 10 000 votes – with full address and identity number. The WLP managed to collect these votes all over the country within a few days, while a nation-wide poll by the monthly magazine, Barometer on Negotiation, showed that nearly 60 per cent of ‘black’ people supported the idea of a separate workers’ party to represent them politically. Could the WLP really only have gotten 4 000 votes? The final results were clearly an estimate. The WLP did not for instance receive votes in areas where it knew it had support. The votes assigned to the organisation by the electoral commission seem so obviously to have been an intentional under-estimation designed to demoralize the leftists.

At the same time, while the WLP had to borrow R25 000 to register with the electoral commission, the ANC had a budget of R168 million for the 1994 elections! Could the Left compete with such resources? In fact, the ANC consented to a World Bank loan for the country even before the ‘94 elections. And, it is in particular in this context that the criticism of Alex Callinicos, as an example, against WLP/WOSA for not voting for the ANC, or for that matter, the minority WOSA tendency that was influenced by elements in the Fourth International to agitate for a critical vote for the ANC, becomes so astonishing. The ANC had signalled its intent to effect austerity measures even prior to the elections, but yet some in the Left were of the view that an independent and radical organization like WLP/WOSA should vote for the neo-liberal, multi-class and predominantly black nationalist ANC. Callinicos even had the temerity to assert that WLP/WOSA was ‘justly punished’ by the low votes for not casting its ballots for the ANC! Of course, in particular after the Marikana massacre, which is the logical outcome of the ANC’s neo-liberalism, it should be apparent that these political streams spectacularly misconstrued the political situation in ‘94.

The WLP was formed as an alliance or front towards an independent and non-Stalinist mass workers’ party in South Africa. That political formation announced publicly that it was primarily campaigning for the building of a mass workers’ party and a right to work campaign. This is another way of saying that the organisation was far-sighted enough to prepare for the struggles that waited in the post-apartheid social formation. At the time, Alexander, the deputy-chairperson of the WLP, stated: “After the elections, the focus will shift from ‘race’ to class. It is with this in mind that workers will have to have an instrument of their own through which they can wage their battle for socialism”. With regards to WOSA, it had three political tendencies in the intense (internal) democratic debates during the months leading up to the ‘94 elections. The majority embraced participation in the elections with a view to propagate the formation of an (independent) mass workers’ party. The second WOSA platform proposed a critical vote for the ANC, while an even smaller number of members advocated a boycott. But most WOSA members were in agreement about celebrating with the oppressed that the terrible yoke of apartheid was finally lifted, but that political consciousness should simultaneously be raised around the idea of a mass workers’ party. Various committees toward a mass workers’ party were established, but by the time the elections happened - due to several reasons - the WLP mainly consisted of WOSA, the Independent Socialist Movement and (individual) trade unionists, grassroots activists, teachers, youth, etc. It was certain that WLP/WOSA would not get a substantial number of votes due to the downturn in the working class struggle, but the organisation was in the forefront of a process around which the entire radical left-wing could have coalesced.

If the organisation had participated in the ‘94 elections as WOSA – that had a national public profile – and with Alexander’s picture on the ballot paper, would the electoral commission and the ANC leadership have been more circumspect with the number of votes given to it? Although a moot point, this validates the contention that votes were hardly of significance to WLP/WOSA and, in any case, Alexander vehemently rejected the top position in the WLP as he did not want his photo to appear on a ballot. Besides the situation that the WLP was virtually unknown, the chairperson of the organisation was a trade unionist, Proff Ndlovu, who was not even in South Africa in the run-up to the ‘94 elections and who did not address a single meeting inside the country. Simply getting a photo of Ndlovu for the ballot was a challenge as he was away on a speaking tour organised by Socialist Action in the US and doing a trade union course at Rutgers University.

The split in WOSA was an outcome of the critical vote tendency being unwilling to adhere to a democratic ethos, but it was also a manifestation of what the Left was experiencing throughout the globe. The demise of the Soviet Union and the hegemony of the neo-liberal paradigm in the 1990s placed the Left all over the world on the defensive and disorganised it. In WOSA, as in all organizations, there were also clashes of personalities and the normal ebb and flow of daily life that take activists in and out of formations. Regrettably, the shenanigans from the small boycott faction in WOSA played a role. With Alexander out of the country at the time, for instance, the boycott faction managed to get a member of the organisation to proclaim on public television, with Richard Dudley, the president of the New Unity Movement, and, Itumeleng Mosala, the president of the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), that WOSA would not participate in the ‘94 elections! The South African Broadcasting Corporation hastily terminated the television program within a few minutes, but the boycott theme definitely impacted on the political message of the organisation.

Nevertheless, the Left only performs well in liberal-democratic elections during times of intensified social class struggle. Compared to the 1984 period, it was precisely due to the downturn in working class struggle ten years later that the ‘94 elections were permitted to materialize by the ruling elite. Although cognisant of this, WOSA consistently reasoned that fundamental change only comes about through mass action and that the building of a mass workers’ party would remain on the political agenda in the struggle towards a situation of dual power. Some leftists criticised WOSA for purportedly building a reformist party, but the organisation contended that a small secretive political body could only attain political power in a weak underdeveloped country (and be unable to hold onto it for long), but not in the kind of society that South Africa is.

With WOSA waning in 2010, Alexander persisted with the Truth Movement (TM) and the Public Participation in Education Network (PPEN). The TM was an endeavour to bring together, once more, socialist and (radical) black consciousness activists, while the PPEN aspired to tackle the education crisis. Other WOSA members have continued with leading positions in, for example, the Democratic Left Front (DLF), the Palestinian Solidarity Committee and the Marxist Study Group (Namibia).

Finally, throughout the letter to the WPSA, Trotsky describes the ANC as the ‘National Congress’. Did he fathom that the word ‘African’ was used in such a confined way by the ANC? Trotsky also explicitly remarked that ‘(t)he thesis brings out as the main political slogan not a “national democratic State,” but a South African “October”’. In other words, Trotsky alluded to the exact opposite of what the ANC did! Be that as it may, we never stop pondering how those ANC intellectuals that espoused the notion of a colonialism of a special kind, would depict the current political situation in South Africa. Would it be a neo-colonialism of a special kind? Or would it be a neo-liberal ‘black’ republic? We eagerly await, in a spirit of democratic dialogue, their riposte.

The historical record confirms that Alexander never considered himself as a Trotskyist and in fact maintained that ‘there is no single perfectly correct variant of Marxism. Its corollary is that nobody alive today has any blueprint for socialism’. Did the keynote speaker at the Conference raise the red herring of Alexander’s alleged Trotskyism at the Conference to deftly sidestep critical questions about the ANC? Almost exactly 20 years ago, in an article ‘Don’t dismiss a workers’ party’, which was a response to Jeremy Cronin’s insinuation that WOSA/WLP was acting on behalf of the apartheid regime’s intelligence service, Alexander noted that those leftists who oppose political opportunism are usually immediately decried as ‘Trotskyites’ or ‘fascists’.

During the Conference, Jordan wondered facetiously what the WLP would have done if it had won the ‘94 elections. Well, instead of implementing neo-liberal barbarism – as the ANC had done - the WLP would have seized the mines and the factories and would have co-organized the working class to run these along democratic lines. In other words, that organisation would have initiated a political program for the socially-just redistribution of resources. Furthermore, the WLP would have immediately taken this radical agenda to the rest of southern Africa and beyond. Our optimism of willpower inspires us to declare that this is what will transpire when – not ‘if’ - the Azanian October arrives. Was the uprising of 1984-86 a dress-rehearsal?

The author was a member of the Workers’ Organisation for Socialist Action (WOSA) and is now with the Marxist Study Group (Namibia). He can be contacted at socialistnamibia@gmail.com



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