ROAPE’s John Saul writes about who won and who lost in the apparently seismic transition to a liberated South Africa in the early 1990s. He sees a parallel recolonization of South Africa both by global capital and by the self-interested actions of local political elites.
By John Saul
In one of the best of recent books assessing the outcome of the South Africa freedom struggle, Are South Africans Really Free? a volume written by South African author Lawrence Hamilton in 2014 he proceeds forcefully to argue that the answer is a resounding NO! This may, of course, be a startling answer for many both in Africa and around the world who supported the South African liberation struggle and celebrated its “victory” in 1994 but Hamilton argues his case convincingly. The book bears careful reading and cannot easily be reduced to some quotable quote. Arguing that “although South Africans are freer than they were under apartheid they are a lot less free than they might otherwise have been had they instantiated institutions that enabled freedom as power” across a much wider range of fronts.
Note in particular, Hamilton writes, such realities as the fact that “the existing skewed forms [of] economic and political representation reproduce the power and interests of elites rather than generate economic opportunity for all” or that South Africa’s “existing macroeconomic policy [has failed] to address the dire conditions of poverty, inequality, unemployment, inadequate education and thus [ensure] the provision of freedom as power for all South African.” True, he continues, the changes necessary would demand “courageous leadership, active citizenship, new forms of representation and a macroeconomic policy that offers radical redistribution of actual and potential wealth.”
But the fact that all too little along such lines has occurred in South Africa leads Hamilton to conclude his book several hundred pages later by again underscoring the fact “that the failure to overcome South Africa’s long legacy of racial oppression and devastatingly high levels of inequality, unemployment and poverty have been the most serious indictment of the African National Congress (ANC) in government.” Here, in short, is post-apartheid South Africa seen as a businessman’s society – at best a “free market” society – rather than as some very “free,” “liberated” or “democratic” society in any more expansive and people-centred sense.
Setting the Agenda: Steve Biko Projects a Range of Possible Futures
The truth is Steve Biko had much earlier worried that the very denouement to the struggle might indeed be his country’s fate and he very clearly said as much. Biko was of course a brilliant Black Consciousness militant, at his most prominent in the 1960s and in the 1970s when, in fact, he was assassinated (in 1977) while being held in custody by the apartheid police state. As a principled adherent to and leader of the Black Consciousness Movement and as holder of a firmly black-centred perspective on the world, Biko saw the racist mind-set that characterized white South Africa as being virtually unshakable, with the dominant European minority frozen, by privilege, prejudice and apartheid, into one unbudging social mould as befitted their sense of themselves as a self-consciously “dominant white race.” As for the majority African population Biko felt it could, under these grim circumstances, most effectively and lastingly mobilize itself to fight back along primarily racially conscious, rather than along merely class, or nationally conscious, lines: this was the politics that Biko principally advocated.
True, this was not the sole vector of Biko’s insight (albeit the one at the core of his reading of South Africa’s past and present). For he was also a close student of, among others, Frantz Fanon, with Fanon’s work, in particular, pushing him to consider the possible weight of other attendant social realities. And this in turn led him, in a valuable 1972 interview, to make to Gail Gerhart some particularly striking statements about the complex interplay between race and class in his native South Africa.
Asked by Gerhart to reflect on the situation in South Africa and to identify “what trends or factors in it…you feel are working towards the fulfilment of the long term ends of blacks,” he suggested that the regime’s deep commitment to a racial hierarchy had actually acted as “a great leveler” of class formation amongst the black population and dictated “a sort of similarity in the community”, such that the “constant jarring effect of the [apartheid] system” produced a “common identification” on the part of the people. Indeed, as Biko saw it, the racial structure of the South African system was what was central, and, for him, it was the emergence of a new confidence and anti-racist/racial consciousness – Black Consciousness – on the part of the mass of the country’s oppressed blacks (African, Coloured and Indian) population that could most readily open the revolutionary door to a new South Africa.
This, as we know, was precisely the politics of Black self-assertion that he himself would follow in the few remaining years of his life then granted him by the apartheid regime. Nor can there be any doubt as to broad resonance of such a “Black Consciousness” emphasis – one evident in the events of Soweto (1976) and beyond – that combined with other currents of resistance to fuel, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, a mass movement for dramatic change in South Africa.
However, Biko was astute enough – he was, as suggested, a careful reader of Fanon – to also recognize the theoretical possibility of other, less savory, outcomes. For, as he also told Gerhart, he saw that in the more liberal system envisaged by South Africa’s Progressive Party of the time “you would get stratification creeping in, with your masses remaining where they are or getting poorer, and the cream of your leadership, which is invariably derived from the so-called educated people, beginning to enter bourgeois ranks, admitted into town, able to vote, developing new attitudes and new friends…a completely different tone.”
This is, of course, precisely what would soon transpire in South Africa’s transition to a post-apartheid future although for Biko it had been precisely because the whites were so “terribly afraid of this” that apartheid South Africa would continue instead to represent, for Biko, “the best economic system for revolution.” For “the evils of [the apartheid system] are so pointed and so clear [that they] therefore make the teaching of alternative methods, more meaningful methods, more indigenous methods even, much easier under the present sort of setup.” But how would he have reacted if he had lived to see global capitalism and a black middle class actually reshaping the meaning of the liberation struggle for which he was prepared to give his own life?
Anglo Plays to Win: Co-opting the ANC as its Partner in Crime
This is also where the Progressive Party alluded to by Biko also fits into the picture. True, this party – the “White” party was most drawn, in the 1970s, to an understanding of what genuine capitalist-led reform might hope to accomplish – was nowhere near taking political power at that point. Nor were capitalists in general nearly so reform-minded in the 1970s as Biko apparently felt the most enlightened of Progressive Party supporters (including, significantly, Harry Oppenheimer himself) already to be.
For, as we know, the entire history of twentieth century South Africa had been one that was much more defined by an alliance between racists and capitalists to ensure both racial and class advantage than one defined by any deep contradiction between the two camps. As suggested above, the dawning awareness of the political dangers that the very baldest form of “racial capitalism” now evoked came pretty unevenly to those within the capitalist class even if some fractions of capital did feel themselves to be more economically constrained by apartheid than others. Moreover, as a more complex capitalism also emerged, the various racial discriminations within the job market – even though the apartheid system was often rather more flexible about them in practice than in theory – could also be felt as a constraint upon the capitalists’ effective deployment of all labour, regardless of its pigment.
Enter, then, the aforementioned Oppenheimer who, as chairman of the Anglo-American Corporation, South Africa’s largest single business enterprise, was to be an especially key player. Moreover, Oppenheimer was also a leading supporter and financial backer of the still small Progressive Federal Party. He was thus well placed to put the key points clearly in the 1970s, this in the first instance with respect to the issue of labour supplies but having also much wider implications. It was a position towards which many more capitalists would gravitate throughout the following several decades.
By the 1970s and then into the 1980s, Oppenheimer and his cronies had begun to feel that apartheid was becoming too crude and politically dangerous a system of exploitation upon which to gamble capitalism’s future. As he told journalists (in 1981), P. W. Botha(the last Prime Minister from 1978 to 1984) and the National Party had “squandered too much time,” so much so that “time is running out and unless substantive changes are made by the mid-1980s, South Africa could face a violent revolution.”
As seen, this was increasingly considered to be a plausible reading of things because the rising temperature of internal resistance so markedly evident in the Durban strikes and in the Soweto uprising had, quite simply, continued to rise in the 1980s. Nor was this “revolutionary threat” tightly linked to work of the country’s ostensible liberation movement, the African National Congress and the ANC. But in some important ways the movement’s exile-status had also opened up opportunities for the South Africa’s largely black population to find additional and often more imaginative sites and styles of struggle than had hitherto been available to it.
Baruch Hirson in 1979 and others were giving strong accounts of the diverse currents that gave rise to dramatic levels of “township unrest” in Soweto and beyond in the 1970s and the 1980s. For Hirson too notes the extent to which the fresh struggles of students in schools and college that began to erupt in “periodic boycotts, strikes and arson” took place in a context in which “it was not even possible to find any traces of formal black students’ organization in the schools before the late 1960s …despite the conflict situations that [had] developed year after year.”
Here were clear signs that the epoch of “undisputed white rule” was really coming to an end. Soweto demonstrated, Hirson adds, “the ability of the black population [really] to challenge the control of the ruling class,” while it also served as a spring-board for the mass unrest that became so much more widely tangible by the 1980s. Small wonder that other capitalists – including even Afrikaner ones – began slowly but surely to share Oppenheimer’s insight that South Africa’s “racial capitalism” was now nurturing, for the 1980s, the threat of a genuine popular revolution! True, the apartheid state would remain a source of on-going and overt repression, but Anglo-American spokespersons and others were set ever more forcefully a different tone – and even Afrikaner capitalists were also prepared to listen.
Small wonder that at about the same time an even more central Anglo player, Gavin Relly – successor to Oppenheimer from the early-1980s until 1990 as the corporation’s chairman – took on a more prominent role in helping to shape a Fanon-style “false decolonization,” one that envisaged and would eventually achieve the putting into place in post-apartheid South Africa of the kind of hegemonic capitalist socio-economic system that had, we have seen, been one of Biko’s worst nightmare. Thus, in 1985 and just before a fateful meeting in Lusaka between leading capitalists and senior ANC leadership, Relly would affirm to the Mail and Guardian that
there is a coherent sense for businessmen to want to find out if there is common ground…that a free enterprise society is demonstrably better at creating wealth than some type of Marxist socialism. I would have thought it was self-evident… that nobody wants to play a role in a country where the economy…was destroyed either by a sort of Marxist approach to wealth creation or by a revolution.
Then, after the Lusaka meeting, Relly felt he could affirm to the South African Broadcasting Corporation that “he had the impression that the ANC was not “too keen” to be seen as “Marxist” and that he felt they had a good understanding “of the need for free enterprise.”
From “magic elixir” to Marikana
The ANC had gone into exile after the Sharpeville massacre and based in Tanzania and Zambia in the sixties, had difficulty in that decade in gaining momentum for the liberation struggle in South Africa. True, it had begun, with assistance from the Eastern Bloc, to develop a military force, Umkhonto We Sizwe but, with “Portuguese Africa” and “white-settler dominated” Rhodesia still firmly in place, the main force of the movement remained some distance away from what was meant to be the chief site of struggle: South Africa itself. Moreover, the ANC/SACP also did retain some underground presence inside the country but the fact remains that, by the 1970s, a whole new surge of revolutionary energy had begun to emerge inside South Africa, driven by activists very conscious of the ANC’s historic role to be sure but often also skeptical about it.
It was in exile, however, that the seeds were being sewn for the fateful alliance between global and local capital on the one hand and the ANC on the other, this constituting a united front that would become crucial to the fate of freed South Africa. Thus, wielding the mantle of Nelson Mandela and the partially mythic liberatory past of the ANC as potent symbols, the ANC/SACP (African National Congress/South African Communist Party) contrived to draw the trade union movement (as represented by Congress of South African Trade Unions) into a partnership – albeit a junior partnership – within the newly-conceived Tripartite Alliance. And the ANC/SACP also succeeded (by both fair means and, some have argued, foul) in convincing the popularly driven United Democratic Front (UDF) to disband itself, leaving in its place only a very weak South African National Civic Organization (SANC0).
For the grim fact was that, like the doyens of capital, prominent ANC leaders were rethinking their strategic options and also switching sides. Never a terribly left-wing force in any case this leadership now had begun to drift towards the embrace an ever more distinctly pro-capitalist tilt of its own. Even Mandela – for all the extraordinary heroism he demonstrated during his 27 years of incarceration by the apartheid state – manifested such a shift. It is true that, on his release from Pollsmoor prison in 1990, he proclaimed to a massive Cape Town crowd that: “There must be an end to white monopoly on political power and a fundamental restructuring of our political and economic systems to ensure that the inequalities of apartheid are addressed, and our society thoroughly democratized.” Yet only four years later (in 1994) he could be found suggesting, as an invited speaker at a special meeting of the American Congress, his openness to the idea that:
[t]he success of your [American] entrepreneurs, and with it the capacity of your society to give work to your citizens, rests on the fact of the elevation of every person, anywhere in the world, to the position of a free actor in the marketplace.
There was actually little room for debate on this issue in the leadership team that Mandela forged once in power – with Thabo Mbeki as Vice-President, Trevor Manuel as head of the ANC’s Department of Economic Planning in the transitional period and ultimately the country’s powerful Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni as Governor of the South African Reserve Bank. It was such men who now acted as a self-conscious cutting-edge for the deepening of the new regime’s commitment to a fully capitalist future for South Africa.
What also bears underscoring here is the extent to which the ANC (and SACP!) had actively plotted, in making such a deal with ‘reform capitalism”. Thus, in exile, Mbeki – soon to be Mandela’s successor as president – was (with others) a key participant in various meetings with South African power-wielders. After all, Mbeki himself had already made his position quite clear earlier in the 1980s when he affirmed that, in his view, “the ANC is not a socialist party. It has never pretended to be one, it has never said it was, and it is not trying to be. It will not become one by decree or for the purpose of pleasing its ‘left’ critics.”
Left Turns: The critical perspectives of Ben Turok, Ronnie Kasrils and Neville Alexander
There were veterans of the struggle who were intolerant of the continuing rightward creep of the movement once it was in power. Ben Turok – a veteran ANC/SACP hand, a then sitting ANC member of parliament, and, as it happens, a personal friend of mine from our shared Dar es Salaam days in the 1960s – was prepared to strike a critical note in 2008, one that did not come easily to so fiercely loyal a long-time ANC activist as he remained. Thus, in what was one of his more recent writings, he would confess to having some difficulty in maintaining quite the same loyalty to the ANC incumbents as he once did. For, as he put it, he had reached “the irresistible conclusion … that the ANC government has lost a great deal of its earlier focus on the fundamental transformation of the inherited social system.” Moreover, he asserted, “much depends on whether enough momentum can be built to overcome the caution that has marked the ANC government since 1994. This in turn depends on whether the determination to achieve an equitable society can be revived.”
Even more startling has been the line taken by Ronnie Kasrils in recent years, Kasrils even admitting in 2014 that he could not comfortably urge others to vote for the ANC anymore – this from a man who had been a long-time Central Committee Member of the SACP, a member of the Executive Committee of the ANC, a one-time head of military intelligence for Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed wing, and an MP and senior minister in the post-apartheid ANC government. The key for Kasrils was what he chose to call the ANC’s “Faustian moment,” a moment when, in his words, “the battle for the ANC’s soul got under way and was eventually lost to corporate power; we were entrapped by the neoliberal economy – or, as some today cry, we ‘sold our people down the river.’”
And finally, there was the rather less surprising political posture taken up by the late and much-lamented left warrior Neville Alexander – once a Robben Island prisoner himself and an exemplary lifer as a progressive South African activist albeit one always operating well outside the ANC fold. Writing some years into the transition to a “new South Africa” and the country’s new “right turn,” he published a book in 2002 entitled, somberly, An Ordinary Country. This is, in truth, a book absolutely crucial for understanding where South Africa is now in the 21st century, one that states clearly that “[t]he post-apartheid state is a capitalist state.” As he continues:
The most unexpected phenomenon has been the breath-taking ease with which the ANC has accepted the most unpalatable of compromises and retreats. Almost everything that had formerly been propagated as sacred cows has proved to be expendable. Most notable among these was the policy of nationalization of the mines and of monopoly companies. This is no longer even mentioned in the ANC; instead, rearguard actions have to be fought inside and outside the Congress Alliance against the ANC leadership’s willingness to undertake wholesale privatization of state property (euphemistically called the “restructuring of state assets”).
More generally, Alexander observed that “the real situation is that hardly any change has taken place in the relations of economic power and control.” True, a growing number of black people have entered the ranks of the economic privileged but as Alexander notes:
Today the movement of history is becoming increasingly discernible. There is a clear shift in power in various sectors from exclusive white ownership and control to increasingly black – token and real – managerial control. This is indicative of the fact that the black middle class, which had been kept in confinement artificially through the policy of apartheid has liberated itself. As indicated above, there is no doubt that this rapidly growing class of people are the real beneficiaries of the compromise reached in 1993…the promotion of the capitalist ethos and practices …as well as the accumulation of capital assets by black middle-class individuals.
It is also true that this quasi-capitalist class is still the main social base of the ANC leadership itself – with its extreme misbehaviour having been most dramatically embodied by the scandalous actions in power of now-deposed President Jacob Zuma.
Capitalism did not die
There have, of course, been efforts in recent years to promote new options beyond those offered by the ANC and the “exhausted nationalism” it embodies. True, the grim, corrupt and divisive presidency of Jacob Zuma that cut short and then displaced Mbeki’s presidential regime was a strong sign of further rot in the ANC’s rule. Cyril Ramaphosa’s similar replacement of Zuma as President (also before the end of the latter’s own full term) was an additional signal of distemper, even if Ramaphosa, a corporate giant in his own right, could at least offer South Africans a rather more rational and less blatantly corrupt – albeit still frankly and aggressively pro-capitalist – governing model. After all, when still in the private sector, Ramaphosa had been one of the principal architects of the gruesome Marikana Massacre that signaled so clearly the brutality of South Africa’s now hegemonic black-and-white capitalist class.
But there has also been on-going resistance from below, with South Africa consistently being in the top-3 of the world’s leading hot-spots for the manifestation of popular demonstrations and violent defiance at the local level and there have also been more organized expressions of alternative left-political assertions: Julius Malema’s otherwise rather unconvincing Economic Freedom Fighters (EEF) has had some fledgling electoral success for example, although other momentarily promising initiatives like the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa-driven “United Front and Movement for Socialism” have tended to founder on the rocks of too bald a brand of vanguardism or other failures of political imagination and craft.
Though it is important to also see the writings of a range of scholar activists that focus on the bold assertions of the Anti-Privatization Forum and other promising fronts for engagement (see, for example, Marcelle Dawson and Luke Sinwell’s 2014 book) – including, more recently, new flare-ups that have also given hope of on-going struggle, (the dramatic “Rhodes Must Fall/Fees Must Fall” student initiatives of recent years, for example, requiring further study in this respect).
To conclude, I’ll cite another good source, this time a book by the estimable Australian-born leftist commentator John Pilger. His appropriately titled, Freedom Next Time contains a strong extended chapter on South Africa entitled “Apartheid Did Not Die.” The chapter documents the fact that White Power did not completely die when Mandela and the ANC took power in 1994. Nonetheless, an equally accurate title for this chapter might have been “Capitalism Did Not Die,” this because what Pilger confirms is that South Africa has witnessed a class – both white and black in its constitution – of privileged South Africans that has together actually reaped the prizes of struggle at least for the moment. Thus, Pilger writes,
In the 1970s, the ANC declared: “It is a fundamental feature of our strategy that victory must embrace more than formal political democracy. To allow the existing economic forces to retain their interests intact…does not represent even a shadow of liberation.” In 2001, however, George Soros told the Davos World Economic Forum that “South Africa is in the hands of international capital.” [For the fact is that] the most basic freedom – to survive and to survive decently – has been withheld from the majority of South Africans, who are aware that had the ANC invested in them and in the “informal economy” by which most barely survive, it could have actually transformed the lives of millions…[Instead, under capitalism, South Africans will have to] suffer many more years of “tears and blood” in a struggle for freedom not yet won.
The task for ROAPE is to take this truth as a starting point and then explore just how a meaningful resistance – one that advances a successful “struggle for freedom not yet won” – can still be realized by the vast majority of South Africans (and Africans). In short, this essay has tracked a course from Hamilton’s ‘Are South Africans Really Free?’ to Pilger’s new title, ‘Capitalism did not die’. Our struggle is set against global capital and against a new South African elite (both black and white), and is now more pressing than ever.
John S. Saul, a founding editor of ROAPE, is Professor Emeritus, York University, Canada and has also taught at the University of Dar es Salaam, the Universidade de Eduardo Mondlane, and the University of the Witwatersrand. A long-time solidarity activist, Saul has published more than twenty books on southern Africa, including, later this year for Cambridge University Press, Race, class and the thirty years war for southern African liberation, 1960–1994: a history.
Featured Photograph: Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk during the transition to the 1994 political transition in South Africa.
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Compelling analysis that should add to the rising swell of silenced movement histories ‘from below’