Tuesday 29 May 2018
The Return of the Red-Headed Step-child
Introduction: The Return of the Red-headed Step-child
Selby Semela was an 18-year-old school pupil and treasurer of the Soweto Students
Representative Council (SSRC) on June 16, 1976. Forced into exile after being shot
and wounded by a black policeman, he co-wrote this analysis aged about 21, and
the strength of thought that shines through it shows him to have been an exceptional
young man. He is believed to currently reside in New York City, but we have not
been able to interview him, or to discover anything about his co-authors.
Nevertheless, what you hold in you hands is a unique slice of South African history:
an analysis of the watershed ‘76 Revolt by a leading black participant in that insurrection
- from a rare libertarian socialist perspective. The shotgun wedding in which
South Africa was forcibly welded together out of two British colonies and two Boer
republics in 1910 produced grimly racialised authoritarian political offspring: White
Labourism and African Nationalism.
The real multiracial working class alternative of libertarian socialism (in its mass-based
form, revolutionary unionism and parallel revolutionary neighbourhood organisations)
was treated by both the Rand Lord oligarchy that grew rich off and the black
chieftain / merchant class that founded the South African Native National Congress
(SANNC, ancestor of the African National Congress, ANC) in 1912 as a red-headed
step-child. From the founding of a local section of the revolutionary unionist
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1910, to the establishment of the Industrial
Workers of Africa (IWA) along similar lines in 1917, the step-child flexed its muscles
and served notice on the old order.
But libertarian socialism was crushed in the 1920s in a vice between the devil of
para-fascist Afrikaner nationalism, and the sea of “native republic” Stalinism. It fell
into a coma from which it only surfaced briefly in the late 1950s / early 1960s with
the establishment of a tiny libertarian Marxist current, the Movement for a
Democracy of Content (MDC), which played a key role in the successful Alexandra
Then the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre and the subsequent banning of the nationalist
“liberation” movements provided the pretext for the authoritarians of both camps to
embark on a war with racist overtones that peaked in 1976/1977 and again in 1985-
1987 (remember: the ANC only fully deracialised in 1985). While libertarian socialist tendencies were present in civic, street and trade union organising in the heat of
the conflict, it was only in the dying days of racial-capitalist apartheid and its pseudo-
opposition that a specific anarchist movement emerged from underground, culminating
in the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation (ZACF) of today, a working
class organisation that agitates among the poor for a rupture, a severence of ties
between the exploited and the parasitic classes that rule us. The red-headed stepchild
had awoken once more!
One of the pseudo-opposition’s main aims in the war was to cynically use rank-andfile
worker and poor community militancy to build the profile of what Semela and
company call “the old spinster/huckster organisations: the African National Congress
(ANC), the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), and the Pan Africanist
Today, these hoary old pseudo-liberators have gone further than the old Afrikaner
elite ever could to help the capitalist state overhaul its image, while maintaining iron
discipline over the blood and bread of the working class. The “democratic” emperor
and his phalanx of “corporate guerrillas” now wear Armani suits over their T-shirts of
that dead Stalinist, Ché Guevara. Capitalist class rule, aided by reworked race classification,
This is the process of deception, disintegration and decay the authors describe here
with regard to Semela’s own organisation back in the ‘70s, the SSRC - and the Black
Consciousness Movement (BCM). Both were, briefly, legitimately used by the
oppressed to throw off their chains. Both are here castigated for their later pretensions
to “leadership” of the struggle, for their “symbiotic” relationship with capitalist
power, and for their substitution of the vanguard party-form for the masses themselves.
That is the primary strength of this pamphlet.
Its main weakness is that while Semela & Co. make a distinctly libertarian socialist
(albeit not anarchist communist) critique, they fail to suggest clear socio-organisational
solutions to the problems they highlight. Hailing working class spontaneity,
they are so shy of “bureaucracy”, having had their fingers burnt by the BCM and
SSRC, that they do not dare spell out what plural and organic forms working class
organisation should take to ensure the continued political autonomy, self-sustainability
and anti-capitalist content of that militancy.
The working class, peasantry and poor need to create their own organisations in
their own image, completely divorced from the compromising models of both the ruling
class and its pseudo-opposition.
These must be organs of decentralised power (not the refusal of power - or the concentration of power), run along direct-democratic lines in which every participant is a
decision-maker, all empowered individuals strengthened by community.
These organs, as much as the “revolution” itself, are the “school of the oppressed”
which train them to create egalitarian grassroots communism in the shell of capital,
even as it is being gutted. These ideas, and not self-appointed leadership cadres,
are what shall lead a future South(ern) African Revolution, the final overthrow of parasitic
class rule and profiteering that our ANC/SACP/PAC/BCM “liberators” have forced to retreat far over our horizon.
True communism is only possible from below, when the vast majority of the underclasses
resolve en masse to end our slavery in our own right, in our own name and
by our own organs of communal power. The social revolution will only be carried out
by the “wretched of the earth”. The time has come for the return of the red-headed
step-child. With the hammer of revolutionary working class unity in her fist, she will
smash capital and the state.
- Michael Schmidt, Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation (ZACF), Southern Africa, 2005