Superstructures and subaltern practices in the ANC and the SCLC

Fredom Movements Essay 1
February 23, 2005

Andrew Ancheta
Yongho Kim

In his controversial book Black Marxism, Cedric Robinson argues that “the roots of Western racism took hold in European civilization well before the dawn of capitalism” (Kelley, 2000: 12). In a differing approach from George Frederickson to the overlaps of racism and capitalism in the occupation of America, Robinson points out that “… the tendency of European civilization through capitslim was thus not to homogenize but to differentiate – to exaggerate regional subcultural, and dialectical differences into “tacial” ones. (Robinson 26) The dilemma observed by the two intellectuals permeates the literature on the two movements that arose as a response to both instances of the system of white supremacy, as is expressed in King’s undecided observation: “Most of us are not capitalists, we’re just potential capitalists” (Garrow, 41)

This paper examines the different social forces – racial makeup of the workforce, ideaological relationship to communism and forms of radical socialism, use of the church, and its position in the post-WW2 international political area – that surrounded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the African National Congress, and how these differences are manifested through strategies adopted by Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King and their advisors.

American blacks had inheritted an entirely different cultural tradition from those of South Africa. Where African Xhosas could proudly trace their lineage back through centuries to tribal warriors, American blacks had no cultural memories preceding the slave ships. They had been fully assimilated a white culture which they made their own. Thus Christianity was to play an integral part of anti-Segregation rebellion; Churches became a central space for the expression of indignation, and Church collections were a basis of SCLC fundraising. The religious nature of the African-American left was also a major reason it became so associated with pacifism, an ideology which resonated strongly with Christian morals. “Nonviolence is my stand, and I’ll die for that stand,” declared King emphatically.(Garrow, 573)

However emphatically the ANC stood by nonviolence, however, they also understood the need to reluctantly take up arms when pressed.

Because of this ideological diversion of beliefs Segregation was defeated peacefully, Apartheid more violently.

South Africans of a revolutionary bent faced a task more grim and far more imposing than the struggle of American blacks. In the US one was either white or black, without distinction of intervening shades of brown. In South Africa the radicals faced a society hopelessly fractured among racial divisions: besides poor white workers were Indians, “Coloreds,” and all of the varying and numerous black African tribes, each with separate cultures and traditions. The white minority played these against one another like puppets, manipulating the minor privileges of each to fill the least-oppressed with burning jealousy and distrust of one another for crumbs from the white capitalist’s table. In his early years Nelson Mandela recalls being

suspicious of the white left. Even though I had befriended many white Communists, I was wary of white influence in the ANC, and I opposed joint campaigns with the party. I was concerned that the Communists were intent on taking over our movement in the guise of joint action. I believed that it was an undiluted African nationalism, not Marxism or multiracialism, that would liberate us. With a few of my colleages in the [Youth] leage, I even went so far as breaking up CP meetings by storming the stage, tearing up signs, and capturing the microphone. At the national conference of the ANC in December, the Youth League introduced a motion demanding the expulsion of all members of the Communist Party…(Mandela, p. 94)

This mutual doubt became a severe hindrance to the development of any kind of mass organization among the oppressed of South Africa. Organizational unity was impossible. The Nationalist government stirred racial animosities with skill. Fear of foreign influence, inflamed by the “Suppression of Communism Act” kept activists nervous about involvement with the powerful Soviet-oriented Communist Party.

The relationship of African National Liberation movements with the Soviet Union in the context of post-Churchill Cold War provides a set of parameters for Mandela to operate in ANC’s political terrain. As evidenced in Patrice Lumumba’s sudden turn to communism, in a step similar to Castro, was a conscientios choice in playing with the United States’ fear of communism for its own National Liberatory agenda. Intellectuals such as W.E. Dubois were often invited by the Chinese communist party leadership to speak on the rampant racism in the U.S. society. Pravda, a state organized newspaper at the Soviet Union, actively collaborated to giving voice to African-American activists in hopes to gain a morally superior position in its war of propaganda against the U.S. (Lim, 2004:74)

Indians and mixed ‘Coloreds’ were given a modicum of rights above those of black Africans, with the understanding that these rights would be revoked if there were any cooperation with the less privileged races. “The pass system, for example, barely affected Indians or Coloureds,” Mandela recalls and “The Ghetto Act, which had prompted the Indian protests, barely affected Africans. Coloured groups at the time were more concerned about the race classification and job reservation, issues that did not affect Africans or Indians to the same degree.”(Mandela, 95) With their interests thus divided along racial lines, it was impossible to for activists to gather the fragmented South African left into any kind of interracial cooperation; the atomic, segregated liberation movements were easily defeated as long as they could not unite. Mandela recalls that many nationalists in the ANC “felt about the Indians the same way I did about the Communists: that they would tend to dominate the ANC, in part because of their superior education, experience, and training.”(Mandela, p. 94) Even blacks were separated from blacks within the ANC; by 1960 Africanists in the ANC were literally coming to blows with the leadership. After a pitched battle on the debate floor in which “Each group was armed with sticks and lengths of iron and numbered at least 100 men”(Martorel: Lessons of the 1950s, Ch. 9) the Africanists seceded and formed the Nationalist-supported PAC. Bitterly opposed to any kind of interracial cooperation, they “considered whites and Indians ‘foreign minority groups’ or ‘aliens’ who had no natural place in South Africa.” The PAC was egged on by the white Nationalists and capitalists, recognizing in them “a dagger to the heart of the African left.”(Mandela, 197-9) Nonwhite South Africa was irreconciliably divided against itself by the white marionnetteer.

Economic cleavages, too, were readily exploited to balkanize the South African left. Middle class black or colored South Africans, were unceasingly manipulated against poor workers. These educated intellectuals were given a modicum of privilege by the white elites, knowing fully that they would be revoked should any cooperation appear with poorer blacks. Mandela notes that this was effected in large part by the Bantustan system, in which “the covert goal of the government was to create an African middle class to blunt the appeal of the ANC and the liberation struggle.”(Mandela, 166) Even in prison privilege was used as a divider. Food was doled out to inmates in quality corresponding to their race, and the “diet for white detainees was far superior to that of Africans.” Every concession was calculated to aggravate tensions among prisoners. When, under pressure, Robben Island equalized rations for all non-white convicts, “instead of simply increasing the African quota, the authorities reduced theamount of sugar that Coloured and Indian prisoners received by half a spoonful, while adding that amount for African prisoners.” (Mandela, 437) Political offenders were denied decent food, a condition that reminded ordinary criminals of what they had to lose. Prisoners were also classified according to behavioral gradings: compliant and timid inmates were rewarded with letters and visits, while the insubordinate and unruly were denied these rights. The “prison authorities wielded the classification system as a weapon…threatening to lower our hard-won classifications in order to control our behavior.”(Mandela, 348) By dividing South Africa the white Nationalists kept a firm leash.

In the United States it was far more difficult to split the Civil rights movements. The color divisions were more unitary than in South Africa; one was either white or wasn’t, with little difference among the shades of brown. Naturally white society did its best to exploit what cleavages there were. African Americans had by then developed a significant middle class, a phenomenon which was still germinating in Africa, which did much to pacify racial indignation. A significant slice of African-American society had received a plethora of satisfying privileges from capitalism. Though the black middle class was neither accorded the right to sit where they pleased on the bus, nor of avoiding the rituals of supplication and genuflection to whites- still, they were given a kernel of fiscal clout, hardly average for a white family but enough to exert domination over the poor majority of African Americans. In “Nothing But a Man,” for example, the working-class protagonist is informed by the middle-class black preacher that black society had remained docile and subservient for eight years -agitation would simply provoke the repeal of those privileges accorded to middle-class blacks. This phenomenon occured more frequently than in South Africa, where the middle class was undeveloped; the Nationalists and capitalists did their best to foster its growth. For example, the film Mapantsula shows well-fed African police repressing demonstrations with equal ferocity as their white counterparts. Just as, under plantation slavery, white overseers bribed slave informers to become their ears within the slave pens, so economic privilege became a fulcrom for controlling the new slaves.

The attitudes of the governments they faced determined much of the policy of the revolutionary movements. However hostile the governments of Southern states were, black Americans had the sympathies of a mostly-friendly Federal Government. In contrast the ANC, a peaceful movement with deep Gandhian aspirations of nonviolent change, was confronted by a powerful white Nationalist government, one which had openly sympathized with Hitler and the Nazis, and had no qualms against using deadly force. Over and over anti-apartheid protests were met with live ammunition and deadly force. The government issued no apology for the Sharpeville massacre, wherein 69 anti-pass protesters were shot, and shrugged off protest as a Communist conspiracy. This was but one of dozens of examples. In 1950 the Suppression of Communism Act banished any organization the government chose to label Communist, a label that was soon applied broadly to any kind of mass-based African rights initiative; the ANC, PAC and many powerful trade unions were banned. Like the closing of an outlet or a safety valve, the abolition of all forms of legal protest closed off the only outlet for legitimate political action; for every African who waived moderate protest in fear of repression there were dozens who turned to more radical options. Violence and terror were not excluded; the armed wing of the ANC was soon setting of “an explosion a week” to weaken the South African regime(Mandela, 440). Marxism spread too; the African radicals held growing esteem for the socialist countries which “provided education and military training for South African refugees, and they were the main suppliers of arms for the military wing of the ANC that began to infiltrate guerrillas into South Africa in the late 1970s. Moreover, the ANC included Communists in its ranks and among its leaders.”(Thompson, 216) With such a resume, allegations of Communist involvement in the ANC could only attract followers to the Party. Threats of African terrorism with Communist involvement, an old justification for repression, became a self-fullfilling prophesy; all the foolhardy and reckless adventures of the ANC and other organizations which followed can be traced back to the stern and heavy fist of the state.

Differential uses of the church as a social institution was expressed as differences in strategy between the SCLC and grassroots movements in South Africa.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference relied heavily in Martin Luther King’s speeches for its financial upkeep (Garrow: 429) and later weakly in the better established black church’s donations. For this reason, while the SCLC could engage in such activism as voting rights and desegregation in transportation, they found internal opposition when resisting Lyndon Johnson (Garrow: 589-91) or protesting the Vietnam War (Garrow:579-84)

Some instances of black resistance using the church as an institutional tool can be observed among the Tshidi people, who engaged in Zionist Pentecostal Church, a widespread phonomenon in Southern African during the 60’s. Because the church was considered by the apartheid administration to be a site of white civilization and christendom, churchgoes could engage in traditional rituals, hiding place for organizers, or as Mapantsula portrays, a space for public agitation and gathering. (Comaroff, 1985)

Ten thousand miles and four hundred years of history separated black Africa from African America. These important differences would result in fundamental differences between the leaderships of the two movements. Black Americans were a minority in a white country, with no cultural memory of anything coming before; it was the tools of white culture, however much they had appropriated them, that liberated them: black Churches worshipping a white Christ, or black universities taught by white professors. The opposite was true in South Africa. Black Africans, for so long an unheard majority, still remembered their old ways of war and freedom, and were ready to fight for what they considered a right. They often felt no need of outside help or cooperation, not even from other oppressed minorities in South Africa, a division the white government exploited with great utility. These divergences, of passiveness in one land and aggressiveness in the other, were to define the two liberation movements.


Comaroff, Jean
1985 Bodies of Power, Spirit of Resistance: the culture and history of a South African people. University of Chicago Press

Garrow, David J
1986 Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Quill

Gibson, Nigel
2004 Black Consciousness 1977-1987; The Dialectics of Liberation in South Africa. Center for Civil Society Research Report No. 18. Durban, South Africa

Lim, Jiyeon
2004 Influences of the Cold War on the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, 1945-1960. Korean Journal of American History. No. 19. pp. 51-77

Mandela, Nelson
Long Walk to Freedom

Martorell, Jordi
Lessons of the 1950’s.∞

Robinson, Cedric
Racial Capitalism: The Nonobjective Character of Capitalist Development. In Black Marxism, Chapter 1.

Thompson, Leonard
The Apartheid Era: 1948-1978. In “A History of South Africa” Ch. 6

Tyson, Timothy B.
1998 Robert F. Williams, “Black Power” and the Roots of the African American Freedom Struggle. The Journal of American History, Vol.85, No.2 pp.540-570



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