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The Unfinished Revolution | The Nation

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The Unfinished Revolution

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Terry Bell provides a useful corrective to Sparks in Unfinished Business, which reconstructs how South African businesses and multinational corporations openly aided and abetted the apartheid system in a willing violation of United Nations resolutions: "Businessmen from major corporations acted in advisory roles to the military, especially on manpower issues, and several held high-ranking positions in the armed forces reserves or part-time 'commando' units." The head of the Stock Exchange was a brigadier, for example, and bank and computer companies have been directly implicated in the murky activities of the state's death squads. Businesses were also engaged in systemic racially discriminatory practices. In the mining industry, for example, they paid as much as ten times more to whites than to blacks and discriminated in the provision of housing benefits. As Bell observes: "These appalling conditions, the meagre rations and even more meagre wages were not required by law; they were a simple outgrowth of racism and the demand for greater profits." Likewise, there was no law that required business recruiters to line up naked African males of all ages and inspect them as if they were at a slave auction. Thanks to its documentation of such conduct on the part of South African business, the publication of the first edition of Unfinished Business in South Africa triggered a series of class-action legal claims against banks and companies that profited from apartheid.

About the Author

Sean Jacobs
Sean Jacobs, a native of Cape Town, is on the faculty of The New School in Manhattan. 

Also by the Author

Although most black South Africans revere Mandela and his party for defeating apartheid, many are realizing that fighting inequality and achieving full citizenship will mean taking on the ANC.

Bell is a Cape Town-based white journalist who was a radical critic of apartheid during his twenty-seven years in exile. While he remains close to the ANC's trade union partners, he has emerged as a prominent critic of the ANC-led government's rightward turn on economic and social policy. Part of the book was written with Dumisa Ntsebeza, the lead counsel representing claimants in a number of the class-action suits. The "unfinished business" refers to the legacy of apartheid, obscured by comforting talk of "reconciliation."

The book is divided into three "files": The first reveals the operations of the Afrikaner Broederbond, the secret society to which every apartheid president, prime minister, clerical leader, educationist, senior military and police officer belonged. It reveals the Broederbond's backing of state-sponsored death squads as early as the 1960s as well as its part in attempts to psychologically manipulate entire populations of black people and to develop chemical and biological agents to control them. These included supplying death squads with lethal muscle relaxants used to kill detainees and "terrorists" before throwing their bodies into the sea, as well as experimental attempts to create drugs that could sterilize and subdue South Africa's black population.

The second file details the ruthless activities of the South African security forces and their surrogates in the Transkei homeland, which the apartheid government hoped to transform into an ethnically based satellite state, a showcase of its "separate development" program. Many of the records of these activities were shredded in the months before the 1994 elections. The Broederbond, most key security operatives and their surrogates, including Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, were never investigated by the TRC.

The last file is devoted to the bloodiest decade of apartheid, the 1980s, in which then-President P.W. Botha and his generals devised a "Total Strategy," an intricate plan in which every town, village and hamlet throughout the country was controlled by a fully integrated security net. The chapter concludes by recounting the events that led up to the negotiated settlement as well as to the creation of the TRC. The book is scathing toward the TRC, on which Ntsebeza sat as a commissioner. Bell asserts that the commission was the least likely forum to address South Africa's unfinished business, dominated as it was, from the outset, by "those beneficiaries on the liberal fringe of the system" (read: white English speakers) who "always ignored the material basis of apartheid." For them apartheid was a sin, in a religious sense--a form of evil discrimination rather than a system of race and class exploitation.

Unity became the watchword, reconciliation the means. Not surprisingly, business was "leading the charge" and most whites suddenly emerged as "champions of a non-racist future." There was broad agreement that too much of the truth would be a dangerous thing, although this tended to be dressed up in demands and assurances to rule out a "witch hunt." Truth was aired, sometimes shockingly, but in the absence of punishment for apartheid's criminals or compensation for its victims, "reconciliation" was mostly talk.

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