– The legacy of Nelson Mandela and the ANC’s non-revolutionary road (AWTWNS 10 December 2013)
– Two decades after Mandela’s release – 20 years of freedom in South Africa? (AWTWNS 15 March 2010)

This AWTWNS news packet for the week of 10 December 2013 contains two articles. It may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as it is credited.

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The legacy of Nelson Mandela and the ANC’s non-revolutionary road

“The road of racial rainbows and imaginary class harmony without mobilising the people to get rid of the existing state and uproot the underlying system and its relations appealed to many, especially the middle classes among the oppressed: it is an easier road than revolution. But the problem is, as the bitter experience of South Africa of the recent past 20 years has shown once again, it is entirely illusory – and imaginary.” (from AWTWNS 15 March 2010, “Two decades after Mandela’s release – 20 years of freedom in South Africa?”)


Since his death on 6 December at age 95, people the world over are paying tribute to Nelson Mandela, to the man who spent long years in the apartheid regime’s prisons as part of the righteous struggle against settler colonialism and who went on to become the first black president of South Africa. Many people are celebrating Mandela’s life because they believe he staunchly opposed injustice and is a symbol to the oppressed. Other people may not necessarily know, or agree with what the world’s leaders are tirelessly praising him for: this boils down to Mandela’s historic role in defusing the revolutionary situation and stopping the high tide of the struggle of the black majority that tore down the apartheid regime at the end of the 1980s and might have gone much further.  The mainstream media salutes Mandela’s consistent fight against the oppression of apartheid, often reducing this to racism, but their acclaims focus on the message of his extending the hand of tolerance and forgiveness to the oppressors, as he and Reverend Desmond Tutu put it so frequently.

In 1994 when he took over as head of state, Mandela announced “Never, never and never again will this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another.” The media have tried to conflate the history of the struggle of the people and its various political organisations with Mandela’s own personal trajectory and political vision of change that he led the ANC to implement. This was a vision of embracing capitalism while promising the people that the ANC could and would reform it in the interests of eliminating the poverty, inequalities, degradation and injustices in so many domains that they suffered under apartheid. So one of the serious questions about Mandela’s legacy is, how is it possible to embrace capitalism and all that goes with it and never again experience oppression?

The non-revolutionary road of partial, peaceful reforms and cooperation with the existing state apparatus that the ANC followed, under Mandela’s leadership at the beginning of its mandate, was in large part based on preserving much of the old system as a whole and the relations between people rooted in centuries of land dispossession and the ideology of white supremacy, in the exploitation of the black majority and subservience to foreign capital and imperialism. This was a road that not only has not liberated people and has not unleashed their potential to transform society, but one that has actually increased the gap between rich and poor and sharpened forms of oppression while the new rulers continue to try to stifle the struggle of the people that has accelerated in all sectors of society as frustration has steadily grown over the past 20 years of ANC rule. “We are tired of waiting,” one hears frequently in the streets and fields of South Africa, and “what good did the vote do us if we continue to live like this?”

The South African people had huge expectations from the fall of apartheid. The ANC and forces supporting it knew this and much of their appeal to the black population before and after the first democratic elections was founded upon a mountain of promises not just for services and houses, but for freedom and radical social change under a black government. Mandela – along with many others – played a decisive role in convincing the people that their struggle was no longer necessary, that they should put down their weapons and anger and forgive the oppressor in the name of the greater public good, social peace and racial harmony.

It is not that the ANC led by Mandela betrayed its own political outlook and programme – which never had the goal of making revolution, despite the occasional media accolades about Mandela the revolutionary. In fact the ANC delivered more or less what its 1955 Freedom Charter and its 1994 Reconstruction & Development Programme (RDP) always promoted – power sharing and social democratic reforms with lots of unrealisable anti-system garnish. (Nationalisation of key industries was always a point of internal differences and subject to compromise.) However, Mandela and the ANC cloaked the appeal of a black takeover of political power in talk of liberation: this was the betrayal of the people who fought in such large numbers over decades to overthrow the apartheid system and for a society that did away with all the misery, oppression and racial degradation. Many within this politically aroused generation saw this as a movement for truly revolutionary change.

Other political forces fiercely condemned the ANC’s reformist Freedom Charter. Yet as intense as the polemics were and as heroic as the sacrifices and struggle of the people to bring down apartheid, a solid revolutionary organisation and leadership did not develop in a way that could challenge the solution that the powers-that-be had decided: to “bank on” – the conciliation of Mandela as a well-known freedom fighter and political prisoner together with the reform objectives of the ANC. The ANC and Mandela also always conceived of the very limited armed struggle they organised and carried out in the early 1960s as primarily a bargaining lever in achieving these aims, not as part of building up a mass revolutionary base to bring down and uproot the system.

Many political forces contributed to bringing theory to and mobilizing the people and some with far more radical theories recognized the need for revolution and fought for it. A range of political organizations the regime had banned emerged or re-emerged, seeking a way out, with different views on what national liberation and changing society required, and providing leadership to different sections and strata of the anti-apartheid struggle. Among these were Pan-Africanists who split from the ANC, Marxist-Leninists closer to Mao’s revolutionary China, various workerist groupings and later those connected to black consciousness developed by Steve Biko. Although it aimed to do away with apartheid rule, this broader movement of forces, including ANC organisations, was also an intense political laboratory of contending lines and visions about how to do that, sometimes involving sharp clashes among the masses, and sometimes fomented by the regime and vigilante traditionalist groups it armed (see AWTW magazine 1995/20 for background).

However, while the factors for a revolutionary situation were sharpening and converging in a very explosive and powerful way, the crucially needed leadership that could develop it towards a revolutionary goal was lacking. The loss of socialist China and its support of revolutionary national liberation movements as it turned into a bastion of state capitalism in the late 1970s was one of the unfavourable factors for a genuine revolutionary leadership emerging. The apartheid enemy played a major role in this and paid a great deal of attention to stopping the development of revolutionary forces by assassinating leaders, torturing and arresting many thousands of activists and general intimidation, within the general lockdown that apartheid meant for the people – restrictions on movements, on assembly; on access to “inflammatory” and revolutionary literature and protest culture. Suffering in these hellholes was a fate the brutal settler colonialist regime meted out to thousands of political prisoners of varying political tendencies who opposed it, many of whom either gave up a large part of their life there, or died in detention. In the face of all this the people resisted and this resistance – paradoxically – is often identified with the imprisoned Mandela and ANC leaders in exile, although the ANC historically represented only one part of it; nor did the ANC develop a strong presence and organisation in the vast rural areas of South Africa, by its own admission, all of which was more a reflection of their reformist perspective than their size or potential influence.

Why Mandela was chosen in a revolutionary crisis

People around the world were inspired by the rising resistance to the hated apartheid state, as a new generation of high school students refusing to be taught in Afrikaans, seen as the language of the oppressor, courageously took to the streets in the 1976 Soweto Rebellion. Their fearless confrontations with the state’s violent machine spread to and increasingly drew in broader sections of the people, including workers and older generations, unleashing a storm of struggle that lasted over a decade, with ups and downs. By the early and mid-1980s apartheid society was out of the rulers’ control. Despite minor reforms and heavy repression, massive arrests and killings, particularly in the burning townships where most black people in the urban areas lived and fought pitched battles with police, the mass struggle became unstoppable. People refused to live in the old way and the state could not rule in the old way.

The apartheid regime alternated between a few further reforms and even harsher repression to try to crush the unprecedented social upsurge and attenuate the mammoth political and economic crisis that began to have international repercussions, greater economic consequences and to raise fears about further escalation into a civil war between whites and blacks. But it is important to remember as the world’s leaders give unending tribute to a peaceful transition, that the period leading up to negotiations was extremely bloody and deadly for black South Africans: in addition to the thousands who lost their lives in the 1980s, at least 13,000 more blacks were killed in the early 1990s alone, after negotiations began.

The apartheid rulers, together with Western states that in the main had continued to support and do business with them throughout the period of white supremacist rule, sought a compromise solution. Mandela began to negotiate in secret with the apartheid state from his house arrest at a Cape Town minimum security prison as early as 1986. For both the local rulers and their imperialist western partners he came to represent the best option to alleviate the crisis and especially to prevent the revolutionary situation from developing into an outright movement to tear apart the state and its reactionary authority. FW DeKlerk of the ruling National Party was brought in as the last apartheid president at the height of the state’s political and social crisis in 1989. Not only did Mandela agree to share a Nobel peace prize in 1993 with DeKlerk, and retrospectively winning the peace prize can be seen as very likely a part of the negotiations process. But as part of being democratically elected as head of state, Mandela also agreed to share political rule in 1994 in a National Unity Government together with the National Party that had been the executors and executioners of apartheid, responsible for so much of the people’s suffering and injustice. The masses of people are still bearing the brunt of the effects of this strategy of Mandela and the ANC. This negotiated transition was a carefully organised plan aimed at “laying to rest” Africa’s explosive and ‘last independence struggle’ against settler colonial rule.

The ANC, like the South African Communist Party, were supporters of the 1950s and 60s Soviet model of liberation in the colonies without thoroughgoing revolution. In turn the Soviet Union had promoted both Mandela and the ANC internationally through pro-Soviet governments like Cuba and Libya as well as extensive networks in the anti-apartheid movement in many countries. Changes in the international situation, notably the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s and the end of the ‘Cold war’ also became key factors in the organisation of ending apartheid rule. Since the ANC’s previous alliance with the Soviet Union then assumed much less importance in an increasingly unipolar world centred around US imperialism, two things happened: the apartheid rulers’ role in opposing the Soviet bloc in Africa suddenly became essentially irrelevant and secondly, western governments made overtures to woo the then politically orphaned ANC and its principal political figure, Mandela in particular, for a compromise solution to the political crisis.

In life as well as in death Mandela was turned into an iconic figure. The international movement against the hated apartheid system and in support of the oppressed black masses was a broad and important public-opinion creating factor bringing additional pressure on the regime and their western government backers (that included the US, Britain, Germany, Japan, France, Switzerland, Netherlands, Israel among others). Older generations remember not only product boycotts, the refusal of artists to perform in South Africa, demonstrations against Western universities and corporations that invested in the apartheid economy, as well as the broader movement for sanctions. This movement also encompassed different political understandings of the system that gave rise to and underlay apartheid. But on the whole it helped politically train a generation of people in the ugly and criminal nature of colonialism (and the role of imperialist states propping it up) and what the apartheid regime’s fist continued to reserve for black South Africans for decades after formal independence had been won or granted in most of the rest of Africa. After a series of bitter struggles and wars of independence, some militarily successful, this was a period in which national liberation leaders were not able to resist the grip of imperialist aid and domination, so South Africa was a key test – for both sides.

What about the argument that the ANC’s troubles and continuing inequalities today are not Mandela’s doing?

Mandela’s death does call for looking at the situation in South Africa that he left behind (analysed in some detail in the 15 March AWTWNS article) and his role in helping to shape it. The South African state did gradually change character beginning in 1994 under shared ANC-NP rule and it lifted formal apartheid laws that helped structure the previous state. Since then further reforms have taken place, a democratic Constitution was debated and written, if difficult to implement, and important incremental changes have occurred, particularly for the emerging black middle class. In some poor areas the small “RDP houses” have been built and electrified and water pipes installed where there were none. The nature of the democracy the ANC has been able to bring to South Africa, aside from formal open elections, continues to be a hot topic almost everywhere.

As regards one of the main feats attributed to Mandela – building a “rainbow nation with racial harmony” – it should be stressed that this evokes different things to different social classes. Among the still poorer sections of people it is an idea that is widely made fun of or hated. People see well-off blacks in the government, but they feel their chances of getting out of their own situation are few or non-existent. Racial discrimination is still plain to see and feel in every sphere, even if it is legally abolished. White supremacy is also alive and well in South Africa, albeit in mutated forms, sometimes subtle, sometimes as openly crass and racist as under apartheid. Racial unity among the oppressed in South Africa and those who will struggle on their side must be built on the basis of opposing this system, not by reconciling with it and succumbing to the divisions it reinforces among the people.

The racially-based division of the land was a central anchor of the apartheid social order and this remains true in the current social order too, with modifications. This is about both the apartheid social engineering between the “white areas” and the Bantustans “reserved” for the rural black population on the one hand, and about who owns and controls the land on the other. These two features still shape how especially rural society is organised and the choices that blacks have. ANC policies and neoliberal (more market, supposedly less state interference) capitalism have strengthened and concentrated private landholding primarily among whites, particularly on the commercial farms. These capitalist farms produce more and more for export rather than local food needs and are more and more tied into global financialisation. For most black people seeking land they previously had no right to own or occupy, except in the reserves, the ANC’s very stingy land reform has merely rubbed salt in an open wound. White landowners also have strongly resisted it. So trying to seriously uproot the old land ownership system flies in the face of the ANC’s capitalist route – already visible in the 1994 RDP of Mandela’s time in power. And the old master and servant relations between boss and farm tenants – while somewhat modernised with wages and minimally applied labour laws on some white farms – still underpin much of the oppressive situation this very poor section of the South African people face, and the capitalist “modernisation” aspects have in many ways intensified exploitation in agriculture.

One of the main aspects we might add to the situation since the article in 2010 that explains the ways in which the economic and social situation have been governed, is that dissatisfaction with the politics and the outcome of the ANC’s , and Mandela’s, programme has markedly increased. This has been reflected in social struggles in many different sectors from civil service, to farm workers to continued service delivery protests in many areas, struggles over school closings and the poor quality of education in black schools, and many others. When a mass movement of miners striking over wages in the Northwest platinum belt in August 2011 dared to go against the ANC-led trade union and carry out wildcat actions against the Lonmin Mining company, the ANC state shot down 35 of them in cold blood, unleashing a torrent of political fury and debate over the nature of this ANC state protecting capitalist interests, both foreign and local. Cyril Ramaphosa, the main emcee at the Mandela memorial on 10 December, is the very same man who sits on the board of this imperialist mining company. Serving also as the ANC’s deputy president, he had great difficulty explaining why and how the democratic ANC-led state carried out this massacre. In 1999 Mandela backed Ramaphosa, a former ANC union leader who has since turned billionaire, in his unsuccessful bid to be the ANC’s presidential candidate (see AWTWNS 5 November 2012).


In many other ways the ANC’s image of an organisation standing for liberation has long worn off among those who hoped it would do something different running the state. In addition, numerous internal conflicts are wracking the ANC, while it struggles to preserve its hold over both the black masses who have lost faith in its promises and over the capitalist plantation it manages for big capital, much of it foreign. Even some of those who have remained loyal to the ANC did not sign up for this nightmare, much less the masses of people who fought and died for national liberation.

But it is important not to shy away from the truth that whatever the intentions, this was the road that Mandela led the ANC to take – not by himself, but not separate from it either, as many commentators are trying to skilfully spare him from in their eulogies. There was no revolution in South Africa. This is most what the powers-that-be are celebrating about Mandela’s contribution to the struggle against apartheid. The “historic compromise” and all that led up to it was intended to prevent a revolution from developing, to extinguish the fires of mass struggle and to substitute false promises of equality for the people’s real hopes and expectations that radical change was within reach, as the apartheid rulers’ crisis came to a head and their hold crumbled over the reactionary society they led.

Is this what Mandela and the ANC intended when they organised protests in the 1950s against carrying passbooks and started an intermittent armed struggle that never really took hold inside the country? Yes and no. Much of the current mess in South Africa is undoubtedly not what Mandela wanted and like others he is often pardoned for holding illusions that a third path of  “humanitarian” capitalism was possible.

Is it Mandela’s fault that things turned out this way? Not single-handedly but in the end he was thrust forward as the first ‘post-independence’ black president signalling the end of formal apartheid and thus became a leader: so he will inevitably be evaluated by past and present history in terms of what he did, thought and what he did not do or try to do. It is his political vision and programme as part of the ANC that are decisive. His personal leadership contributed significantly to suppressing the massive people’s uprising in order to broker a political agreement acceptable to his enemies; this was part and parcel of the ANC’s programme that in no way challenged imperialism’s grip on the country and the world. Indeed instead it helped to strengthen it, in the process helping the country to assume a position of dominance within the African continent as a whole. The negative example of bowing down and giving up when the oppressors were weakened and “on the run” that Mandela and the ANC also set for the millions of oppressed people around the world – who deeply hoped that liberation rather than accommodation would be the result of this colonial conflict – was also not a minor political and ideological achievement for the imperialists. For Mandela to establish a false social peace and to put a new spin and face on the old state that sits atop a stifling, exploitative system did not offer any kind of solution for the oppressed. For the people of South Africa, this situation remains a prison that must be broken out of and it requires conscious revolutionary leadership with the aim and vision of a completely different society to do so. Many in South Africa are looking for just such a way out.

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The following article from AWTWNS 15 March 2010 is reprinted below because it provides much of the background material for understanding the situation in South Africa since the fall of apartheid.

Two decades after Mandela’s release – 20 years of freedom in South Africa?

15 March 2010. A World to Win News Service. The world watched elatedly 20 years ago as Nelson Mandela was finally freed from 27 years in South African jails in February 1990, so hated was the apartheid regime and all the injustice it stood for. Mandela, as one of the world’s longest-held political prisoners had become a sort of living legend. Apartheid’s jails regorged with thousands of political prisoners from the decades of struggle against apartheid representing different organisations and different perspectives. Many fighters, leaders and soldiers died in detainment or were hanged in police stations, thrown out of upper-story windows and never saw a wigged white apartheid judge go through the motions of a trial. Treason was a common charge. And the masses of South African people had made enormous and heroic sacrifices during the struggle and periods of upsurge over the previous decades. Although Mandela’s enemies secretly began negotiations with him in 1988,[1] it was never a secret that their releasing political leaders and unbanning opposition groups in 1990 was a calculated step in the dismantling of apartheid and reorganisation of political rule in South Africa.

At the end of the 1980s the apartheid system of enforced racial segregation and oppression in which the black majority (including people of Indian and mixed race origin) was legally forbidden the most elementary rights was rotting at the seams under the combined weight of major social, political and economic crisis. It was a revolutionary situation, which the white settler regime fully realised as it could no longer contain the political upsurge that had been shaking the country in waves since 1976 and reached a peak in the mid-1980s. Despite police invasion of the townships where most blacks lived, these became bases to stage different forms of struggle. Youth, students and workers, including foreign migrant workers, organised mass boycotts, stay-aways (from school, businesses and work), strikes, fighting with police and then funeral marches after people were gunned down. In the rural areas too, where most Africans were forced to live in phony ethnic-based reserves, people rioted against the despised bantustan authorities and their vigilante squads, fought for better land and resisted force removals as part of apartheid’s territorial consolidation. While vast sections of blacks were mobilised in one form or another to fight white rule, many thousands were also actively involved in organisations fighting for national liberation and revolution, and passionately debating the future.

President P.W. Botha’s counter-revolutionary strategy, combining some reforms and modest social welfare with divide and conquer tactics among the anti-apartheid forces; utterly failed to stabilise the situation. The situation was so out of control by 1986 that the apartheid government declared emergency rule with curfews and a doubled police force that occupied the exploding townships. In the late 1980s four to five thousand people were killed. Every funeral was turned into another round of struggle. The intensity of the upsurge led the regime to ban 31 black political organizations in 1988, provoking the creation of numerous new local committees to carry on. The struggle remained at a high level into 1990.

The apartheid rulers, advised by the West, sought Nelson Mandela’s help to end the crisis and smother the escalating revolutionary movement by lending credibility to a negotiated settlement with anti-apartheid organisations. They were able to buy precious time while they reorganised South Africa’s political rule in ways that did not fundamentally change the socio-economic system it served and the country’s role as powerhouse of Africa and guardian of imperialist interests in the region.

As it was designed to, the negotiated compromise in South Africa had a terrible effect, helping to snuff out the revolutionary aspirations of the millions of people who, at the cost of great sacrifice including their lives, threatened to pull down the regime in order to end white rule and all the vicious oppression and suffering it represented. This immense opportunity and revolutionary potential was channelled into voting for one of 19 candidates with Mandela representing the ANC (African National Congress) that had been groomed to share state power with the slightly reformed National Party – the same reactionary party that had presided over formal apartheid for nearly 50 years. It was called a Government of National Unity. Having the right to vote for the first time in history, naturally the majority of Black people turned out in record numbers to elect the popular former political prisoner Nelson Mandela with hopes that the ANC would be able to deliver on its promises of liberation, returning the land to blacks, and doing away with the inequalities and bitter subjugation they had endured for so long.

How did a so-called national liberation organization led by Mandela succeed in drowning this revolutionary process? How did it become such a willing tool of the ruling classes?

ANC’s politics – a history of talking liberation while betraying the people’s interests

Mandela had been widely promoted worldwide, partly through the movements and networks linked to the Soviet Union of the 1960s through the mid-1980s, as a particularly prominent symbol of freedom, in fact far beyond his direct political role or influence and those of the ANC inside the country.

The ANC didn’t become “turncoats” once in power, as some people argue with nostalgia for the days of struggle against apartheid: its precious service to the ruling classes flowed logically, if sometimes indirectly from its politics. The ANC was not a revolutionary national liberation organisation. Its politics and programmes have never been based on thoroughgoing liberation for the people of South Africa: not on the proletariat and oppressed seizing power and leading a genuine national (or new) democratic revolution, not on breaking with the stranglehold of the imperialist system, and not on a vision of a communist future. The revisionists of the South African Communist Party (SACP), active in the politics, leadership and organisation of the ANC, were closely connected to the Soviet-led bloc of social-imperialists for decades. For them, socialism and the notion of “people’s power” meant taking over and reforming the old existing state. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the new unipolar world order, the ANC was quickly wooed from the wing of the Soviet revisionist umbrella to the western neoliberal imperialist agenda and bourgeois democracy: an ensemble of formal political rights while reinforcing the capitalist ownership and production system. In other words in 1994, the ANC carried out more or less the agenda they had always promoted, wrapped in a light national liberation cover. And that is why the bourgeoisie in South Africa and western citadels sought their complicity.

The ANC’s limited vision in its 1955 Freedom Charter, still a reference point today, was inspired by notions of classic bourgeois equality from the US Constitution. It also called for partial nationalisation of some industries and banks and sharing the country’s land and wealth. The ANC promoted occasional non-violent mass campaigns, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi (such as those against the pass books restricting black people’s movements) and later limited armed actions organised outside the country as a means of pressuring the apartheid rulers rather than mobilising the people to overthrow them.

In a country where black workers were oppressed in all spheres of society and paid a fraction of the wages whites earned, the SACP/ANC argued for “unity of the working class” between the black proletarians and more privileged whites who were a key part of the apartheid regime’s reactionary social base. They were unable to seriously address, much less solve the central national question – rooted in the white settlers’ subjugation of African people – and its ongoing repercussions, which together with the pivotal problem of the colonial land theft and freedom from foreign (imperialist) domination were at the heart of demands for national liberation. This was one reason the revolutionary nationalists of the Pan African Congress broke away from the ANC in 1959 with a more radical programme. In the 1970s under the guidance of Steve Biko the Black consciousness movement emerged and played the crucial role in the famous Soweto rebellion in 1976 that unleashed a wave of popular upsurges over the next 15 years, involving a range of political forces, from trade unions to township initiatives, and rural areas.

Disgusted with what they considered to be the sell-out politics of the ANC in particular, small more revolutionary offshoots of these (black and Pan-Africanist nationalist) currents were influenced by revolutionary China and Mao Tsetung’s teachings and sought to challenge the whole system while seeking revolutionary theory and analysis to guide them. In the political landscape of the 1980s, national liberation and overthrowing apartheid rule were on the minds of hundreds of thousands of people. Within and among the anti-apartheid movements, the labour unions and the schools and universities, different radical views and programmes contended over how to bring about revolutionary change. But a genuine revolutionary party based on a scientific ideology with a communist line and leadership unfortunately never materialised in the course of this high tide of struggle, for a number of reasons. In addition to the impact of continued repression, the state’s assassination of leaders who did emerge, as well as the revolutionary forces not anchoring themselves firmly enough in the contradictions of the imperialist system as a whole as well as the highest ideological understanding of that time, the powerful effect of the ruling class ending formal apartheid and derailing the struggle towards electoral compromise cannot be underestimated.

1994: Negotiating to share political power within the old state

Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, along with other political prisoners, and the unbanning of numerous political organisations was a key step in launching the negotiations process for multi-party elections and the gargantuan effort to draw a large section of the black liberation movement, including many of its radically-minded intellectuals, into that process. Mandela called on the people to stop their struggle, lay down their arms, to “bury the past, extend a hand”. (Some examples of Mandela’s class collaboration are more or less accurately portrayed in the beginning of the 2009 movie Invictus, as he sought to override mistrust among ANC employees faced with sharing the state with their previous enemies. One scene in particular depicts Mandela welcoming the same special branch security officers into his personal bodyguard who had actively hunted down and killed anti-apartheid activists.)

Heavily financed and counselled from the West, the ANC and its sister organisations, trade unions, and the SACP set about communicating the message that antagonistic struggle was no longer necessary: a peaceful electoral path would solve South Africa’s tremendous problems, if blacks – the ANC — joined the government and worked from within to change the nature of the state. Aiming to gain some seats at the tables of political power as they existed with a big boost from the more liberal sections of the white capitalist class directly tied to imperialism and the imperialists themselves, who were actively working for a transition on terms favourable to their continued domination of South Africa, the ANC willingly became a political instrument of these classes and interests they had ostensibly opposed for decades. Worse, much of the ANC’s own complete surrender to this plan took the form of being soldiers in the battle to politically disarm and actively demobilise broad sections of the movement against the regime at a very crucial point in history while helping convince leaders with whom it had long-standing disagreements — whose rank and file had shed blood over — to join in the negotiations project.

Mandela and prominent clergy like Desmond Tutu lead the way to these “talks about talks”, as they were dubbed. Given the sharp tensions over different programmes and struggle against the non-revolutionarypolitics of the ANC, naturally disputes and misgivings arose among the various participating liberation groups, including the PAC, Azapo, left ANC splinter groups, Trotskyist circles inside and outside of the ANC and others, some temporarily pulling out or arguing for interim “guarantees” such as a Constituent Assembly. But the “miracle” the bourgeoisie and its international partners achieved was to bring most of these black political leaders into the same tent of compromise. If successful, the US imperialists were eager to apply this model to other conflict-ridden states and former colonies that needed to be politically stabilised as post WW2 arrangements increasingly were becoming outmoded. An important component of the model was to build up the black middle and better-off classes that had a material stake in the system and to appeal to those who aspired to be part of the elite. In turn they would help continue to persuade the country’s majority poor population they didn’t need to overthrow capitalism, but must instead “take part” in developing it, which required making peace with those at the top – both black and white.

One of the other great myths about the South African transition was that it was peaceful. The negotiated agreement was cemented in a combination of talks AND violence. When the international bourgeois press crows that “civil war was avoided” it means that there was no open “race war” between white extremist groups – which were more or less neutralised and pulled into the political compromise as well – and the black masses. In reality, the world witnessed a very bloody process of apartheid moulting to shared political rule in the early 1990s in which over 13 thousand black lives were lost. Open fighting repeatedly broke out or was orchestrated between the ANC or other political organisations and the right-wing Zulu nationalists of Gatsha Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party and its paramilitary forces, supported by police and security forces or by conservative white groups threatening to destabilise elections. In addition, sharp contradictions over the political differences between the moderate United Democratic Front, the ANC and its more rebellious youth base on the one hand, and Azapo and other political groupings in and around the black consciousness movements and PAC on the other hand, often took a violent form. Thirdly, state violence to repress the rising struggle of the people (portrayed from the perspective of the future in the “science fiction” film District 9 as an armed onslaught against the masses of alien “prawns”) was in fact a daily reality in the townships and resulted in several massacres after 1990 from Bisho in the Ciskei to Sebokeng in Gauteng.

The road of racial rainbows and imaginary class harmony without mobilising the people to get rid of the existing state and uproot the underlying system and relations appealed to many, especially the middle classes among the oppressed: it is an easier road than revolution. But the problem is, as the bitter experience of South Africa of the recent past 20 years has shown once again, it is entirely illusory – and imaginary.

In reality, the society is nearly as segregated as ever – minus the legal apartheid scaffolding supporting it. Despite a rising and very visible black middle class, inequalities between rich and poor have actually increased. New political freedoms, while greater than under white rule, are mainly channelled into pressuring the ANC in government for more service delivery and exercising a vote to keep them in power. Twenty years ago, a whole generation was ready to tear up the place for something new, different and truly liberating.

At the same time, many people’s experience had taught them to distrust the negotiated outcome and they were (and still are) bitterly angry at being dragged into this deception — trading the masses’ revolutionary struggle in for the chance to vote for a black government that, despite its populist promises, is in fact governed by the needs and requirements of the global capitalist-imperialist system that such posturing serves. Struggles continued to erupt against the ANC’s betrayal of the people but the giant tide to become citizens in a liberal democracy had a powerfully debilitating effect, as it was intended to, polarizing things in a very unfavourable way for revolution.

ANC’s 1994 programme: neo-liberalism and bourgeois equality promoted with populism

The post-election state was composed of a Government of National Unity between the National Party headed by the pre-1994 president Frederick DeKlerk and Nelson Mandela for the ANC from 1994 to1996. ANC leader Thabo Mbeki was elected in 1999 and again in 2004. However, a major split in the party occurred after the national ANC congress replaced Mbeki with Jacob Zuma as head of the organisation in late 2007. In an unprecedented move, Mbeki resigned early from the South African presidency in September 2008 because of this factional friction within the ANC and charges (later overturned) that he had interfered with Zuma′s prosecution,[2] leaving a hiatus until Zuma won the top job in April 2009. Mbeki’s supporters formed a new party called the Congress of People (COPE) in December 2008, which other South African liberal opposition parties welcomed as it was seen as weakening the ANC’s near electoral monopoly of black voters.

Despite secondary political differences among these three ANC presidents, corresponding to divergent views within the party over how best to carry out its goals, the ANC’s common basic programme and approach help explain how in an intense period of revolutionary turmoil the party was able to sound credible to a politically conscious and aroused black population wanting to turn the system upside down that was responsible for the unrelenting oppression and harsh injustices of apartheid.

Four essential features stand out in the ANC’s political strategy and propaganda:[3]

First, the appeal of immediate democratic rights (dispensed by a black government) in a very undemocratic society colonised by white settlers. This included “equality before the law and equal protection” under the law for everyone, freedom from discrimination and servitude and full dignity and respect as citizens. The new Bill of Rights removes the countless restrictions from apartheid and accords the right to vote, to assemble, to move about freely, as well as the right to religion and political expression and so forth.

The Bill of Rights itself is very democratic in content and an important basis for any transitional society. However, cast through the ANC’s politics, in truth this appeal reflects the narrowing down of people’s dreams of liberation to western-style formal democracy and illusions that the new citizens, as individuals, were acquiring political power through the ballot box. The government did open up public debate over key issues in many areas, but dissent and protest tended to be either handled in a paternalistic way or oriented towards official (ANC-related) channels and organisations. The ANC constantly stressed the importance of people’s participation through assembles, conferences and public discussion in reform processes that were essentially decided by the recomposed state and such participation certainly did not affect important structural changes or fundamental transformations. And, like in other formal liberal democracies, this freedom of expression does not permit any serious challenge to how society is organised and to which class holds political power.

As if to underscore this latter point, while a side aspect involved loosening the grip of police repression against political opponents, the main security apparatuses of the murderous apartheid system have only been slightly reorganised and former members of the various liberation armies had to renounce their past to receive demobilisation money or to be integrated into the reactionary South African army.

Secondly, the ANC promised to deliver miraculous social development to address the needs of the deprived and expectant black population, using its liberation struggle credentials and critique of colonialism and apartheid crimes. These promises included full employment, radical redistribution of the land within a few years, education, healthcare, electricity, food security and housing for all, a major programme of social assistance and much more.

This was a social democratic vision, and only moderately redistributive, not a socialist one. The ANC promised to fight from within its position in the joint state for a programme of social reforms that corresponded to illusions the ANC itself fostered – that the system it inherited and presided over, if properly guided in a “humanitarian” or “pro-people” manner, could produce and deliver the things the people desperately needed and desired. This essential lie that the system could (and would) be reformed in the interests of the “poorest of the poor”, as the ANC liked to put it in 1994, with a liberatory quality of life and changed social relations between people, was recycled in 2009 as the [myth of the] “developmental state”. [4]

This illusion relied on a third and crucial feature: that the existing economic set-up need only be “adjusted” and future national growth that would eventually finance social development necessarily depended on further integration into the world imperialist system, international markets and attracting foreign investment. Part of the demagogic appeal, especially to the aspiring middle classes, included passing anti-trust laws, which would break up the giant white conglomerates dominating the economy and open up vast opportunities for black entrepreneurs. The true freedom to compete in a truly free market, open to all races.

The neoliberal macro-economic plan put into effect (called Growth, Employment and Redistribution– GEAR) moved away from the uncompetitive apartheid-era centralisation of state enterprises to more classic liberalisation and producing for export. This involved freeing up capital for financial speculation and deregulating investment, privatising public services with the idea of stimulating the creation of black-owned businesses, jobs and a bigger tax base. How this capital accumulation (and profit) could be achieved without intensifying the conditions of superexploitation of black South African masses, national oppression, low-paid labour and remaining pre-capitalist forms of oppression was not explained by ANC and neoliberal theoreticians. Many people nonetheless understood that its parasitic capitalist and market essence was not likely to bring the social changes promised[5] and GEAR became a key focus of protest over the following years, even within the ANC’s own political alliance, particularly by the trade union confederation, COSATU. While critical of this policy, the SACP never broke ranks over this decisive question of the economy, instead defending their right to democratically debate it under ANC leadership. A large handful of huge conglomerates continue to control the national stock exchange while sub-companies and black director and management positions were created.

The fourth aspect was an appeal to civil peace, stabilisation and national reconciliation.

Translated practically, this meant forging reactionary unity with the bourgeois classes and the imperialists the people had been courageously fighting against for so long. And at the heart, it was closely connected to smothering and denying the central importance of the national question that is objectively a major faultline in South African society. The very rotten structures and social relations of apartheid that were bursting to be overthrown were literally built and enshrined on the basis of brutal national oppression, deeply embedded in all aspects of the social fabric. Rather than uprooting the causes and basis of this oppression, the ANC has called for “improving race relations”, eliminating formal racial discrimination and especially empowering blacks without taking away anything from whites, who still live in a privileged and relatively separate European-like world. Government leaders routinely denounce outward expressions of continued white supremacy or turn extreme cases over to languish in the courts. To blacks the ANC sent the message that now the problem is economic inequality, so they should “be patient, you’ll get yours”, “after all, changes take a long time given our past”, and, “now that we’re in power the colonial problem is history.”

After over 20,000 people and groups provided testimony of the violence they suffered under apartheid before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in 1995, the few perpetrators of these crimes from the police and the state who came forward to confess were pardoned. Neither this attempt to impose reconciliation nor the attempt to equate violence by the oppressed with the violence of the oppressor went down well with the people – another very bitter pill the ANC-led state shamefully and willingly shoved down the throats of the black population in the name of civil peace and “moving on”.

Empowerment and enrichment of a few…

20 years of freedom? This depends on who you ask. If you circulate in the cities and countryside of South Africa, you are likely to hear, “well, we are free to vote, but little has changed for us under a black government; we are tired of waiting”; surprisingly in 2009, many added, “I’ve voted twice and I don’t even know if I’m going to bother this time – what good does it do? ”

Mandela and DeKlerk were rewarded with a joint Nobel peace prize in 1993 and their several-year political union, while far from harmonious, accomplished its goal of joint rule to stabilise the country politically – at least temporarily. The neoliberal macro-economic policies put into effect under their watch were able to at first improve sluggish growth, which has since slowed considerably. Financialisation of the economy has given the wealthy few trading on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange a new lease on life and strengthened the rand, South Africa’s currency. The Black Economic Empowerment scheme set up to promote black entrepreneurship has successfully made a small class of people obscenely rich, who have become shareholders in the largest companies, as well as CEOs in some cases, or who secured tenders through political connections to the ANC top brass. And many of the ANC leaders themselves have not bothered to conceal their “nouveau riche” status, showing up at rallies in Mercedez-Benz and the latest bling. In addition, previously suppressed under apartheid, a much larger urban black middle class has emerged in South Africa, filling a demand for professionals, managers, computer engineers and technicians as well as numerous retailers.

However, the main picture shows a much bigger gap between rich and poor in the past 20 years, giving South Africa one of the highest inequality indexes in the world today. The poorest sections of the black majority, whose position initially improved some percentage points, have become poorer. The number of South Africans living on $1 a day more than doubled between 1996 and 2005 and over one third of the population now live on less than $2 per day. In the rural areas (40-45% of the population) closer to 70% of black households live in real poverty, over half of whom are headed by women. Although some people with access to land can grow some of their own food, especially the staple maize crop, rural land-based livelihoods have been battered down by a century of white monopoly of farmland, which post-1994 land reform has done very little to change. In addition, while a new minimum wage was introduced several years ago, it is not enforced in much of the white commercial farm areas, where oppressive often pre-capitalist social relations mixed with South Africa’s lowest wages still prevail.

To offset growing poverty, the government has greatly expanded its system of social assistance in the past few years and nearly a quarter of South Africans receive some kind of grant, particularly in the form of child protection. Housing, electricity and services have all been improved in the past 20 years, but the privatisation of many public services has made them unaffordable to many. Hosting the World Cup has required enormous outlays to build the necessary sports facilities and infrastructure.

Another big issue is jobs. Over one million jobs have been lost in the past decade under ANC rule, particularly in mining and manufacturing. Unemployment officially stands at 22%, some figures report 40% and studies have put it at nearly 70% in the rural areas. Part of the dispute comes from the fact that sections of the huge informal economy in South Africa are not counted, such as the large numbers of petty traders selling a tiny pile of onions or overripe bananas on the street, so common throughout the third world. Each year the ANC government sets new targets for creating jobs.

South Africa’s social situation is little better. Deeply entrenched segregation means that schools, transportation and housing, like all spheres of society, remain for the most part physically and racially separate by neighbourhood, town, even while a few mixed middle and upper middle class areas have developed in and around large cities like Johannesburg. Less than 1/5 of the population can afford medical plans and private sector health services, so the demand for free healthcare for all that has been on the agenda since 1994 is a central one. Some 5.7 million people are infected with HIV/AIDs and in 2007 nearly 1000 people died each day from it, Mbeki’s policy banning anti-retrovirals in public health institutions undoubtedly fuelling these numbers.

With a few exceptions, whites drive their own cars and don′t mix with the millions of black township residents who travel long distances between home and jobs in the city with the parallel “black” collective taxi-vans. Schools have officially been reclassified and some fees eliminated, but the old divisions persist between good white (now mixed) schools and those in the black townships and poor rural areas. The former white elite universities are more integrated but often black students can’t afford to stay past the first year or two.

Crime is a constant preoccupation as South Africa has one of the highest rates of murder and rape in the world. White and affluent mixed neighbourhoods are increasingly separated off from the real world behind closed gates. In front of each house in middle class areas with lawns and flowering trees, a private security guard sits on a chair, and – at first glance striking to the foreign visitor – almost all individual private homes in such areas are surrounded by high walls. The symbolic barbed wire of apartheid – to keep black people out – is still visible everywhere. In reality, most crime targets poor people and the dense labyrinths of dimly-lit township alleyways are a nightmare for women after dark. The ANC’s response has not been to mobilise people to change the underlying conditions for all this, but to focus on common criminals. The US magazine Time, recently featuring Zuma on its cover, approvingly refers to what is commonly seen as his “shoot-to-kill” policy.

Since the “democratic rainbow miracle” has intensified poverty and class differences and since white supremacy has hardly disappeared, struggles have regularly broken out over a broad range of social issues. While these protests are mostly tolerated, the ANC has renewed its populism in order to narrow down political frustration directed at the system – and to deflect criticism away from themselves, who are presiding over that system – towards service delivery problems that take “more time and money”. Although reluctant to criticise the ANC “comrades” for some time, over the past decade some of South Africa’s active social movements have been challenging ANC policies and political will to bring about the changes they call for. By way of example, protests have included food riots, struggle over prepaid electricity power meters in the townships, and over housing by shack dwellers in Durban as well as protests over unemployment, the slowness of land reform along with a spate of strikes over pay, including by public sector workers and even pro-ANC labour unions. Campuses blew up in 2008 over the outrageous racist incident at the Free State University when white students urinated in food they served to black housekeepers at their dorm.[6]

Even if over 50% live in poverty in South Africa, it is still the continent’s “richest” country and continues to attract large numbers of immigrants. The urban housing crisis and massive joblessness have also fed into uglier expressions of the contradictions among the people such as the xenophobic attacks in May 2008 that resulted in 62 deaths, renewed on a smaller scale in several areas of the country since that time, in which poor slum dwellers (along with some gang-organized activity) targeted Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Malawians and other foreigners living in South Africa. This polarized the masses in a very bad way, rather than focusing anger at the system and the ANC government, which did not hesitate to send in humvees and troops to keep order, reminiscent scenes of brutal police repression under apartheid. White farmers have also participated in the anti-immigrant hunt, alternately “hiring” Zimbabweans who have crossed the border looking for work and literally chasing them back to Zimbabwe with armed private patrols and dogs.

Patriarchy rules…

The press has focused on Zuma’s headline-grabbing “unpresidential” polygamy and his seeming inability to keep his trousers on. The ANC recently told him to “zip it up” and to publicly apologise for fathering a 19th child, this time with the daughter of the World Cup local organising committee chair (who he since agreed to take as a fourth wife through customary marriage). In the wake of his falling out with the Mbeki forces in the party over corruption charges and political rivalry, Zuma has tried to boost ANC popularity through reviving Zulu nationalism and stressing his modest origins, while denouncing the new COPE split-off party as a ‘rich man’s club’. His supporters wear in-your-face T-shirts saying “I’m 100% Zulu” to underscore the fact that Mandela’s and Mbeki’s ethnic Xhosa-speaking social base is no longer in charge. Zuma’s open defence of reactionary patriarchal traditions and rape as “Zulu cultural obligations”, however, is really only a different form of the patriarchy and tribalism characteristic of Mandela and his “royal” line, or Mbeki’s paternalistic “defence” of African knowledge and culture while denying pregnant women infected with HIV/AIDs access to anti-retroviral drugs.[7] (And, as might be expected from its cultural level, still vocal white supremacists  retaliate by attacking Zuma’s behaviour towards women with the worst of racial slurs.)

Zuma portrays himself as a “man of the people” who knows poverty and doesn’t need Mbeki’s refined English accent nor foreign law degrees to deliver what the people need. He constantly invokes the “comrades” and the ANC’s credentials in the struggle against apartheid, but has no reservations in appealing to foreign investors in the next sentence or calling for the return of the death penalty. The British bourgeois press has expressed faith that his left populism is merely “talk”, while he can be counted on to pursue Mbeki’s “conservative financial” policies and govern “from the right”.

Relations with the imperialists are not without contradiction, but overall South Africa has won their approval, even earning a seat at the G20. The ANC’s role of political fireman goes hand in hand with its leading position as the organiser of imperialist-dominated development in the continent, with a particular strength in the southern African subcontinent.

Building a revolutionary movement

South Africa’s ruling class has been able to make noticeable changes from apartheid society within the narrow confines of a stunted bourgeois democracy built upon an economic system in which the majority is frozen at the bottom even while small social strata within the black population are enriched. While the underpinnings of this stiflingly oppressive system are essentially the same, a different political configuration rules over it today, with the pretentious claim to have “built the foundation of a new society by enshrining the basic human and democratic rights of all in the country’s constitution”. (ANC 2009 Election Manifesto)

Reportedly the party’s 2009 election slogan, “Working together we can do more” was frequently “doctored” on city walls with additions like “evictions”, “exploitation” and “corruption”.

South Africa is bursting with social contradictions that capitalism can and will never solve. Revolution is needed as much as ever, along with a communist line and organisation to lead it, mobilising the favourable factors for the development of a thoroughgoing revolutionary movement. Despite some of the negative deadening effects of the ANC’s populism and the seduction of hoping to buy into capitalism’s very selective fruits, as well as sharpening divisions among the vast numbers of people for whom those fruits are more or less permanently forbidden, there are also many positive factors. The society is highly polarized racially and socially and extremely politicised with constantly contending views and different forms of struggle erupting. This is linked to a powerful and bitter history of struggle against apartheid, which included a large section of the older generations fighting for national liberation, many of whom are completely disillusioned with the ANC. Along with the unresolved land question that has clearly illustrated the continued weight of white minority control over agricultural land 15 years after land reform was introduced, and the still pervasive and explosive national question, the continued workings of the capitalist system itself continue to grind down the black majority and offer little future for younger generations. Spontaneously these factors will continue to force people to struggle but in the current reformist headlock of the ANC, will lead to little more than pressuring the government for more welfare and service delivery as it already promises. Yet many people yearn for something entirely different – liberation and the new society they didn’t get. And new generations are coming up against similar obstacles as before, as nationalist views are resurrected with varying degrees of militancy to try to answer the dilemmas posed by the ANCs 20-year demonstration that its politics and ideology have nothing to do with genuine liberation.

For those who are looking, the mask has long slipped off the ANC’s social democracy. In a world whose emperors declare this deceptive goal to be the highest we can reach for, those who wish to accelerate revolutionary change must ask the hard questions: what kind of revolutionary process is needed to thoroughly uproot and transform the old as well as the more “modern” oppressive social relations? How is national liberation linked to a vision of going further to create a whole different society, not based on either colonial or capitalist relations dependent on and still heavily shaped by imperialism? A starting point for rebuilding a revolutionary movement.

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[1] According to the British Guardian newspaper (9/2/2008), his successor Thabo Mbeki also met secretly in exile with the NP government as early as 1986.

[2] Mbeki dismissed Zuma as Deputy President in mid-2005, who was closely associated with fraud and corruption charges stemming from a $5 billion arms deal with the French. He allegedly received thousands of dollars in kickbacks, for which his financial adviser was jailed in 2005. Prosecutors finally dropped the case in April 2009, two weeks before the vote.

[3] See the ANC’s 1994 Reconstruction & Development Programme and its 2009 Election Manifesto.

[4] An example from the 2009 Election Manifesto doublespeak: “We must ensure that the mandates of development finance institutions are clear and truly developmental and that their programmes contribute to decent work outcomes, achievement of our developmental needs and sustainable livelihoods.”

[5] Other aspects of the ANC’s programme, like the remarkably paltry market-based land reform, also failed to pacify the black population and continue to fuel social tensions, the subject of a future article.

[6] In the interests of “reconciliation on a divided campus”, the university allowed them to resume their studies a year later.

[7] Although portrayed internationally as simplistically opposing science, Mbeki’s refusal to respond seriously to the rapidly escalating AIDs crisis in South Africa (with disastrous consequences and 600,000 deaths in 2006) was grounded in his moral stance against what he called “global apartheid”; he opposed portraying Africans as ignorant victims of a western disease, forced to buy expensive western drugs and argued that AIDs was linked to poverty rather than its viral origins.

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