Mourners at the graveside of a Soweto massacre victim

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 30, 15 June/15 July 1983

‘I was in the East End of London yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for ‘bread’, ‘bread’, ‘bread’, and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism ... My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, ie in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we, colonial statesmen, must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced by them in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.’ (Cecil Rhodes 1895)

True to his word, Cecil Rhodes played a leading role in acquiring ‘new lands’, in his case Southern Africa, in order to secure the future of capitalist Britain. To do this the imperialists knew that they would have to ensure fresh supplies of raw materials, create a market for more investment and profit-making, and most important of all, by buying off a section of the British working class and creating a labour aristocracy, prevent social revolution. Imperialism is not a choice it is a necessity if capitalism is to survive.

Of course Cecil Rhodes’ ‘new lands’ were only ‘new’ to the British. They were the homelands of many peoples with their own civilisations and cultures. To provide material wealth and social stability in Britain, these peoples had to be crushed into subservience, into slave labour, their cultures and civilisations destroyed. This is the bloody history of imperialism in Southern Africa and oppressed nations throughout the world.

Southern Africa has played an important role as a source of profits for British imperialism — it is a land rich in minerals, gold and, because of apartheid, cheap labour. Britain is the biggest overseas investor in South Africa, accounting for more than half of all overseas investments there. Capitalist Britain cannot exist without apartheid South Africa — and this is why the history of the British Labour Party and South Africa shows that Labour cannot ever carry out its election promises to withdraw investment from South Africa because it is committed to a capitalist Britain.

RACISM AND IMPERIALISM: The Labour Party’s origins

The 1982 Labour Party Programme quotes from their first major statement on Africa in 1921:

‘At home Labour is attempting to substitute a system of equal economic opportunity and industrial democracy for a system based upon the economic exploitation of the worker by the capitalist. In Africa the policy of Labour must follow the same lines; it must aim at substituting a system based on common economic interests of the inhabitants for the existing system based on economic exploitation of the native by the white man.’

All well and good. But it was not their first statement on Africa, and this quotation reveals only Labour’s broad intentions which differed a great deal from their practice.

The forces which were, in 1900, to form the Labour Party were divided on support for Britain in the Boer War in South Africa. The war was long and bloody, and Britain established the first concentration camps where 26,000 Afrikaner women and children died. Some like the Fabians, including Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb, supported Britain’s conquest of the Transvaal and argued that ‘states with a higher civilisation have a right to take over backward states’. On the other hand eighty three trade union officials criticised the Boer War, saying ‘The Capitalists who brought up or lured the Press both in South Africa and in England to clamour for war are largely Jews and foreigners’. A very racist beginning for both sides.

Nine years after the Boer War, in 1910, despite appeals from black South Africans, Britain handed over power to the privileged white minority—the colonial British and the Afrikaners. A series of racist laws were soon passed. The Native National Congress was formed to represent Black Africans (it changed its name in 1925 to African National Congress). Its stated aims were to seek redress of grievances by constitutional means and to agitate for the removal of the colour bar in education, industry, Parliament and the administration. In 1914 the Afrikaners formed the National Party led by General Hertzog, on a platform of extreme racism and anti-British nationalism.

The Afrikaner nationalists were not yet in power, but very soon the government had introduced the Native Land Bill — assigning 90% of the land to 1 million whites, with 7.3% of the worst land for the black people. The black people were forced off their land. The Master and Servant Act made it a crime for any black person to break a contract or refuse to obey his employer’s orders, effectively making strikes a criminal offence. At a time of crisis the black people’s organisations looked to Europe for support — they found none.

By 1917 the Labour Party was firmly opposed to self-determination for African people on the grounds that ‘it is impracticable here to leave the various peoples concerned to settle their own destinies’. The official Labour Party statement in reply to the Bolshevik peace proposals made it very plain:

‘Nobody contends that the black races can govern themselves. They can only make it known that the particular government under which they have been living is bad in some or all respects, and indicate the specific evils from which they desire liberation’.

Using some very familiar arguments on immigration to Britain, in April 1917 the annual conference of the Independent Labour Party ‘emphatically condemned proposals to import dispossessed native labour of European dependencies’ because this ‘could not fail still further to lower the standard of life of the people of this country’. FW Mosses of the Federation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Trades, had put it more sharply, ‘But I draw the line at the yellow man or the black man’. He argued that such labourers would work for next to nothing and would bring into Britain conditions which were detrimental to its morality and traditions.

More specifically on South Africa such racism was reflected in Labour’s practice. Labour held its first British Commonwealth Labour Conference in 1924. The all-white racist South African Labour Party was asked who should be invited. Henderson wrote to them saying: ‘We shall not communicate with any Trades Union in your country until we have heard your opinion.’ The South Africans suggested only their counterpart, the all-white Rhodesian Labour Party, even though the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) was already a strong trade union organising black workers in South Africa, and the Native National Congress had certainly ‘made it known’ that the South African government ‘was bad in all respects’.

The South African Labour Party at the same time backed General Hertzog’s racist policies, so much so that it formed an alliance for the election in 1924 which made Hertzog prime minister. The Labour Party in Britain failed to put any pressure on its counterpart in South Africa to end this alliance.

When the ICU, in 1926, sought admission to the Commonwealth Labour Conference the Secretary of the joint international committee thought it ‘hardly the special duty of the British Trade Union officials to establish contact and assist them’. When the ICU applied for affiliation to the South African TUC, despite appeals, the British trade union leadership failed to exert any pressure on the South Africans to admit them. The application inevitably failed but the TUC and the Labour Party felt they should not ‘intervene in a domestic matter’. This was the perennial excuse for failure to act against the growing racism in South Africa. South Africa had Dominion status, and as such control over its own domestic policies, but at heart the Labour aristocrats shared the same racist point of view and this was the real obstacle to any challenge to white supremacy.

SOCIALIST IMPERIALISM: The Labour Government 1929-31

In the same year that Labour came to power in Britain (1929), the Nationalists under the leadership of Hertzog, gained an overall majority for the first time in South Africa. Oswald Pirow (later an admirer of Hitler) became Minister of Justice and flew to Durban to personally administer the collection of taxes from the black people. 500 white police supported by 200 Native Police invaded the black areas, arrested 350 people, threw tear gas and terrorised the population. The black people were unable to pay taxes because wages in Durban had not risen since 1914. The assault on the black population and their few remaining rights continued. By December 1930 40,000 black Africans were being convicted under the pass laws every year.

The Labour Government was happy in practice to ignore what was going on in South Africa. The Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society, spurred by Hertzog’s removal of the vote from the handful of black South Africans who could still vote in the Cape, urged Prime Minister MacDonald ‘to set forth a national policy on the treatment of Coloured Colonial subjects’. The policy was to cover four essential points: native rights in land and industrial freedom; opposition to the colour bar; empire citizenship to mean full rights regardless of race, sex, creed or colour; training of natives in legislative responsibility.

The Labour Government’s reply in July 1929 maintains their earlier position on Black Africa. It is worth printing here in full.

‘But it is questionable whether a statement of general policy by the Prime Minister on the subject of a “national Colonial policy for the treatment of the coloured colonial subjects of the Empire” is either possible or desirable. The variations of policy in the government of native populations must in the main depend not on questions of race or colour, but upon the stage of civilisation, education and economic development that has been attained by any particular section of the community. The problems presented by the civilised races of the East and the Europeanised blacks and coloured folk of the West Indies have an aspect differing entirely from those presented by the peoples of primitive culture, suddenly brought into close contact with an advanced social and industrial system, with whom this country has to deal, for instance in Tropical Africa.’

No one could doubt that this windy reply was intended not to offend the white South Africans and Australians.

This same Labour Government permitted the Southern Rhodesian Land Appointments Act to be passed in 1930. The Act had been introduced by the Tories, but there was no doubt that the Labour Government could have stopped it but chose not to. The Act introduced segregated land rights for Europeans and black Africans. The better land went to the whites and the black people were prevented from settling in the towns — another apartheid state was being formed with the connivance of the Labour Government.

POST WAR IMPERIALISM: The Labour Government 1945-51

The Labour Party swept to power in 1945 on a tide of popular radicalism. It espoused the ideals of democracy and the equality of the ‘common man.’ Unfortunately such radicalism did not run very deep, and certainly did not extend beyond the shores of Britain.

In South Africa, Hertzog had been ousted at the beginning of the Second World War by Smuts, but the racism of the regime remained. Many Afrikaner nationalists were imprisoned during the war because they supported Hitler. In 1946 when 50,000 African miners went on strike, they were swiftly and bloodily forced back to work by the state. In 1948 the Afrikaner Nationalists took power again on a platform of apartheid — racism became institutionalised in the South African state. The Nationalists immediately abandoned all proposed reforms to the migrant labour system and pass laws, and perhaps worst of all ended school meals for African children — many of them wholly dependent on this meal. Alongside this they released the Nazi war criminals and suspended the banning of their organisations.

Black people began to organise within the ANC to fight apartheid. A Programme for Action was adopted at a conference in 1949 including strikes and civil disobedience. Minister of Justice CR Swart announced he was studying the conference speeches and that, in company with the Chief of the British Secret Service, he was going into the question of the growth of Communism. In 1950 the Suppression of Communism Act was passed.

How was the new, ‘more radical’ Labour Government going to respond to its inherited Empire of colonies and dominions? Much the same as before. In January 1946 Herbert Morrison said ‘We are great friends of the jolly old empire and are going to stick to it’. Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary, addressed the National Union of Manufacturers in October 1948 along the following lines:

‘We have ceased to be an imperialist race: we dominate nobody’

But his speech continued:

‘I believed and still believe that: If we can organise Western Europe with its direct connection with the Middle East,

If we can use the great resources of our Colonial Empire in Africa,

If we can work out co-operation with our great Dominion of South Africa,

If we can arrange matters correctly with Pakistan and India,

If we can maintain a correct position in South East Asia, and if we can make our proper contribution to the revivification of China,

then with a little planning we somehow occupy the position of a great balancing factor as between East and West, and may provide the correct equipoise and the correct equilibrium for the maintenance of peace and prosperity in the world.’

We dominate no-one but we intend to dominate everyone, seems to be the message here.

Nor had the Labour Party’s position on self-determination for African countries significantly altered. In the draft Policy pamphlet of 1943 they said:

‘Nearly all the colonies outside Africa are, in the opinion of the Advisory Committee, ripe for full self-government or at any rate for a very large measure of self-government ... In Africa however conditions are entirely different . . . From the point of view of Europeans, their civilisation and their economic system, the inhabitants of the African territories are “backward” and “not yet able to stand by themselves.”’

The final version was altered to remove reference to ‘the point of view of Europeans’ but substantially it remained the same. The final document also weakened the stand on the colour bar, removing the clause which prevented grant aid to any country where the colour bar existed.

On two further issues, the racist standpoint of the Labour Party became clear in its subservience to white South Africans. South Africa had persistently attempted to annex South West Africa (Namibia) on a permanent basis. This had been blocked at the United Nations no thanks to the British. In 1950 the United Nations resolved to place South West Africa under United Nations Trusteeship. The Labour Government opposed this, their 1951 Handbook explains why:

‘The Labour Party regards the racial policies of the present South African Government with repugnance. But in dealing with the General Assembly resolutions on South-West Africa, moral feelings cannot change the legal position. In the British view it was by no means clear that the Union of South Africa was under any legal obligation to put South-West Africa under the Trusteeship system of the United Nations.’

Here we see a familiar pattern of argument emerging — ‘We are totally opposed to South Africa, BUT …’ Labour Party election manifestoes and programmes are littered with condemnations of apartheid, but like ‘litter’ they count for nothing. Perhaps the real reason for their opposition at the United Nations was not pettyfogging attention to legality, but the vast mineral resources of Namibia, which, whilst under the control of South Africa, were accessible to the British.

The Seretse Khama affair showed the real sordid hypocrisy of Labour. Seretse Khama was heir to a chiefdom in Bechuanaland (at this time a British Protectorate bordering on South Africa, now Botswana). When he was old enough he was elected chief with a majority of 5000 to 43, but the decision had to be approved by the British Government. Unfortunately the Labour Government was unable to approve, for Seretse, whilst in Britain, had married a white woman, and the South Africans were known to oppose his recognition as chief. In the 1951 Handbook, Labour explains that its decision was ‘misunderstood in some quarters’ . . . ‘What the Government had to decide was whether Seretse thus married was likely to make a suitable Chief who could command the loyalty of his people and ensure order and unity in the tribe and good relations with the tribes around’ (our emphasis). Presumably the White Tribe of South Africa was uppermost in their thoughts. The Government inquiry into the affair was never published.

HYPOCRISY: The Wilson Government 1964-70

From its outset the Wilson Government was beleaguered by the problem of Rhodesia. The chickens were coming home to roost. In 1961 the British Parliament had agreed a new constitution for Rhodesia which incorporated such harsh voting restrictions for black people that by 1964 only 10,700 of the 60,000 entitled to register to vote had done so. Of these only 1,443 black people voted in the 1965 election. Ian Smith wanted independence based on the 1961 constitution which would prevent majority rule for the next 150 years. The Labour Party, in opposition in 1961, had voted against the constitution —they could not now concede independence on this basis. The next six years of Labour Government were spent trying to achieve a compromise that the black Commonwealth countries could be bludgeoned into accepting, without Ian Smith and the racists having to give up their privileges and power which the British had given them in the first place.

The Wilson Government, under threat of a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) by Smith and the racists, was anxious to negotiate a settlement based on ‘unimpeded progress to majority rule’. The black Commonwealth leaders insisted that independence should be granted only on the basis of ‘one man, one vote’ and universal franchise. Many of the leaders of the Zimbabwe liberation movement were detained without trial at this time.

But Smith and the racists were in a strong enough position, with the backing of South Africa, to refuse to accept the Labour Government’s tawdry compromise. In November 1965 the Rhodesian Front declared UDI. The United Nations pressed for immediate action by Britain, the use of troops to quell the rebellion and the imposition of a new constitution based on majority rule. A resolution was passed in the General Assembly but was not binding on Britain. The Labour Government immediately made it clear that it would veto any mandatory resolution in the Security Council.

 London Johannesburg

The poor in London and Johannesburg suffer under imperialism (Photo: Stan Winer)

Wasn’t it extraordinary that a British Government, usually only too ready to send in troops (as the same Labour Government did in the north of Ireland in 1969) was refusing to use force against the white racists in Rhodesia? Not really when you consider the Labour Party’s continual compromise with South Africa. From 1961 to 1966 British companies invested £28 million a year in South Africa. From 1967 to 1969 this almost doubled to £53 million a year with a record in 1969 of £70 million. Decisive action against Rhodesia was ruled out if it was likely to upset British trade with and investment in South Africa.

The Wilson Government agreed on trade sanctions against Rhodesia, including oil. But they were a farce from the beginning, despite Wilson’s prediction that they would soon bring Smith to his knees. The oil sanctions never worked because the oil companies used South African subsidiaries as their supply routes. In 1966 Shell and Mobil financed a 100,000 gallon oil depot at Messina in the Transvaal, within easy reach of the Rhodesian border.

By the time Wilson came to power, 67 people had been shot in the back in Sharpeville, South Africa; the ANC had been banned and had formed its army Umkhonto we Sizwe; Nelson Mandela and his fellow leaders of the liberation movements in South Africa had been gaoled for life; repression in South Africa had grown to new heights and the black South African people and their allies had shown by their courage that they were fighting a just war for liberation against fascist apartheid. But despite the ritual condemnations of apartheid which were now a feature of Labour Party conferences, when it came to taking a stand in support of the struggle Britain’s stake in apartheid, its investments, must not be affected.

In 1964 the Labour Government introduced an embargo on arms trade with South Africa, excluding the substantial contracts already signed. In 1967 the Labour Cabinet was split on whether to continue the embargo, and after much wavering decided to maintain the ban. They were very quick to reassure the South Africans, however, that all other trade would remain unaffected. Crosland wrote:

‘In 1967 we sent goods worth nearly £260 million to South Africa, ... Our investment in South Africa has been estimated to be of the order of £1,000 million by the Reserve Bank of South Africa ... We are very conscious of the importance attached by South Africa to her exports to the UK. We have firmly resisted political pressure to terminate the preferential access enjoyed by South African products. Our concern to see this valuable trade develop and to avoid any economic confrontation with South Africa has been repeatedly made clear in Parliament and the UN.’

Some of this ‘valuable trade’ which Labour wished to see develop included uranium from Namibia. Tony Benn, as Minister for Energy, signed a contract with Rio Tinto Zinc for 7,500 tons of uranium from the Rossing Mine in 1968. The contract was to run from 1976 to 1982.

After the cancellation of the Springbok cricket tour to Britain in May 1970, the Labour Government told its trade officials to reassure the South Africans that this must not affect trading relations. Indeed the real motivation for the cancellation of the cricket tour was Wilson’s fear that, in an election period, violent anti-apartheid demonstrations might be blamed on the Labour Party, and on himself in particular.

BROKEN PROMISES: The Labour Government 1974-79

After 4 years the Labour Party picked up where it left off. Labour’s election programme for 1974 promised:

‘We oppose all forms of racial discrimination and colonialism. We will continue to support the liberation movement of Southern Africa. By a decision of the Government arms are no longer being supplied to South Africa. The Labour Government will seek to end the unlawful South African occupation of Namibia. The policy of sanctions against Rhodesia has been intensified and we will agree to no settlement which does not have the agreement of the African people of that country.’

In addition the Labour Party Programme of 1973 pledged an end to further British investment in South Africa and the termination of the atomic energy contract with Rio Tinto Zinc for the Rossing uranium.

The Labour Government honoured none of these pledges. Arms continued to be supplied to South Africa and Britain vetoed the UN mandatory arms embargo, along with France and the USA, only three weeks after the 1976 Labour Party conference had called for a stricter application of the British arms embargo. In the same month the Department of Trade allowed Marconi to export a multi-million pound communications system to the South African Armaments Board. In 1974 the Labour Government welcomed a senior research official of the South African Institute for Defence Research to the top secret Royal Radar Establishment and the Defence Operational Establishment.

Callaghan Vorster

Callaghan and Vorster (Photo: Stan Winer)

In June 1976 the youth of Soweto took to the streets to fight the apartheid regime. Thousands were killed and injured. Independent non-racial trade unions were being formed, the workers were striking against apartheid and the military struggle against apartheid reached new heights. But what did the Labour Party’s pledge to support the liberation movements amount to? Very little but rhetoric. British Leyland was nationalised by the Labour Government in 1975, at the same time black workers in British Leyland’s South African factories were fighting to achieve recognition of their union. They expected the Labour Government to act in their favour, but true to form Labour let them down:

‘... Although the Government has a controlling interest in British Leyland, it has been agreed that its administration should be the responsibility of the management and their commercial judgement should prevail.’

South Africa made an initial request for an IMF loan in January 1976. The Executive Board, led by Britain and the USA, approved the loan. Britain’s representative said:

‘We are pleased that South Africa has requested a standby arrangement which will give the South African authorities some additional room for manoeuvre and some feeling of international support, which they deserve.’

By the end of 1977 South Africa had borrowed $464 million.

In a broadcast in South Africa in March 1977, the British Ambassador summed it all up:

‘South Africa’s friends and trading partners spend an appalling amount of time and energy in international bodies trying to achieve an image which will minimise the damage caused by these [United Nations] resolutions to internal trade, to sport, to what you will ...

‘It is because we have so many interests in common with you, which we want if possible to maintain because we have investments in your country — the biggest investments of any country in Southern Africa, which we hope will remain profitable and remain sound — because we buy from you more than any other country does and we would like to go on doing this, even because we would like once again to play international cricket and international rugby with you and, as evidence of our good will we thought it right to take a line in the United Nations and Security Council, which, let me say frankly, has brought down very much criticism from the rest of the world. In particular I must remind you that the only four occasions on which my Government, Britain, has exercised the veto in the Security Council during the life of the present Government has been in favour of South Africa.’ (our emphasis)

Who could say more?


The record of Labour in power speaks for itself — complete betrayal and hypocrisy. At each stage where the oppressed have forged ahead with great courage to challenge apartheid, they have met with treachery and lies from Labour in Britain.

Cecil Rhodes and his fellow imperialists did their job well. When Britain seized ‘new lands’ for exploitation in the late nineteenth century, it was able to buy off a section of the British working class. It is this section, the labour aristocracy, who owe their privileges to imperialism. It is this section which the Labour Party and the Trade Union leadership represent. Lenin summed it up in 1916:

‘On the one hand, there is the tendency of the bourgeoisie and opportunists to convert a handful of the richest, privileged nations into “eternal” parasites on the body of the rest of mankind, to “rest on the laurels” of the exploitation of Negroes, Hindus etc, by keeping them in subjection with the aid of the excellent technique of destruction of modern militarism. On the other hand, there is the tendency of the masses who are more oppressed than formerly and who bear the brunt of the misfortune caused by imperialist wars, to throw off that yoke, to overthrow the bourgeoisie. The history of the labour movement will from now on inevitably develop as the history of the struggle between these two tendencies: for the first tendency it is not accidental, it is ‘founded’ on economics. The bourgeoisie has already begotten, nurtured, secured for itself “bourgeois labour parties” of social chauvinists in all countries . . . unless a determined and relentless struggle is waged all along the line against these parties or groups, trends, etc, it is all the same—there can be no question of a struggle against imperialism, or of Marxism, or a Socialist labour movement.’

There is no possibility, contrary to what the left of the Labour Party have argued in the General Election, that the 1983 Labour Party is different from its predecessors. If Labour had come to power in 1983 it would have trodden the same path as all previous Labour Governments —compromise with imperialism. Because the Labour Party represents the labour aristocracy, because its own future is tied to the survival of capitalism, no matter how ‘democratic’, it inevitably will invest in apartheid and rake off super profits from oppressed nations throughout the world. The Labour Party has its roots in imperialism itself.

The allies of the oppressed people of South Africa in their struggle for freedom, are the oppressed in Britain who have no stake in apartheid or imperialism. Investment in apartheid will be ended. Aid and support will be given to the liberation movements in Southern Africa. Not by the Labour Party who, by their record, have chosen the side of the ‘eternal parasites’, but by the oppressed in Britain, as part of the common struggle against imperialism.

Carol Brown


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