South Africa: A Revolution Betrayed?

A dialog on Africa-L (February, 1995)

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Date: Wed, 15 Feb 1995 22:39:47 -0500
Sender: Pan-Africa Discussion List <AFRICA-L@VTVM1.CC.VT.EDU>
Subject: South Africa: A Revolution Betrayed?

Perhaps the most ironic development since the official dismantling of the apartheid system in South Africa has been the simulteneous disappearence from the vocabulary of many people who were originally opposed to the old system, the notion of economic exploitation. This despite the fact that during the apartheid era when one was called to describe the evils of apartheid, primary among the list of grieviances were (1) the exploitation of the Africans, (2) regulation of the labor supply through the sytem of Homelands to guarantee cheap labor flows (3) gender discrimination in the workplace so as to force African women to earn even much lower wages and (4) landlessness, etc.

Today, on the tongues of both liberals and progressives in South Africa the songs sound the same: economic growth, jobs, housing, health, as though the definition of these needs is congruent with their respective philosophical and economic theories. As if production with the intention to maximize capitalist profits is synonymous with satifying social needs. As if charitable interventions by foreign capitalist financed NGOs and Agencies (i.e.IMF, USIA, etc) is progress. Finally, as if since the end of the Cold War all the contradiction that often pithed the North-South, rich and poor have disappeared, and like in the old biblical myth, lions can now lie down with lambs. Has the ANC betrayed the revolution?


New School for Social Research
Department of Economics
New York

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 16 Feb 1995 14:21:09 PST
Reply-To: Chris Lowe <Chris.Lowe@DIRECTORY.REED.EDU>

Thanks to Thami Madinane for his trenchant comments.

He asks if the ANC has betrayed the revolution in South Africa. How different ever was the envisioned "national democratic revolution" from what is transpiring? The major difference is that for many years the programmes of the ANC & its allies proposed nationalization of the mines, and of associated monopoly corporations. Possibly land redistribution on a wider scale than the currently mooted 30% was foreseen by some. But was the position on compensation for either nationalized enterprises or land ever particularly clear? In any case, the result of such a programme would still have been some species of mixed economy, although more social democratic than the one evolving now. Socialist critics of various stripes pointed that out for decades in criticizing the ANC and/or the SA Communist Party's two-stage theory of revolution. Within a mixed-economy frame, what is happening now is a substantial retreat from the older ideas. We should understand the retreat at least partly as a response to power. Yet the decline of "progressive" discussion of inequality and exploitation as problems is indeed disturbing.

In interpreting what is happening now, I think we have to look at shifting balances of power globally, at the experience of social democratic and Leninist states in the 1980s & 1990s, at the blandishments of office and class mobility, and at the intellectual and political poverty of the left on a world scale.

The collapsing power of the Soviet Union changed the field of struggle. Nat-ruled South Africa lost its cold war significance to Northern capitalist countries, while the ANC lost main sources of material & especially military resources. The South African "revolution" was negotiated between weakening parties in unpredictable circumstances. On the other hand, globally transnational corporations and related international financial institutions emerged strengthened from the social and political crises of the last two decades. In the North (especially in the U.S.) the corporations have waged successful struggles to raise productivity and secure a larger share of the profits therefrom, to reduce internal social security and stability for workers and the unemployed, to disorganize workers, and to pressurize the effective political parties into a narrow and reactionary range of positions. A major tool of their success has been the threat & reality of capital mobility, in part to places like South Africa. Now South Africa faces such capital mobility as a stick too, with the transnationals and the international agencies saying in effect, "conform or be abandoned" (in the form "it's cheaper in Malaysia").

In seeking a response, it is hard to find an easy alternative. The collapse of some Leninist states, and the repressiveness of the remaining ones (both politically and in new forms of marketization), make that model now unattractive on grounds of practicality on top of the model's long-standing problems with legitimacy, democracy and ethics. In the mixed economy societies, the French experiment with nationalization in the early 80s led to quick reversal; social democracy has been ground away in Britain, Germany, Sweden, Canada and elsewhere; while the U.S. appears to be on the verge of an orgy of socially destructive reaction which will make Reaganism and even Thatcherism look like a tea-party. African, Asian and Latin American efforts at relative autonomy have succumbed more or less rapidly to pressure. So where can the ANC turn for alternative ideas?

In these circumstances, two kinds of temptation must become more salient for the new governors. One temptation is the arguments of "realism." Perhaps the most disappointing feature of developments so far is the extent to which people who have gone into government from the independent trade union movement have accepted this line, and seem to have lost touch with their old base. This is bad for them, amounting to a form of intellectual self-censorship. It is also bad for the unions; for example, the adventuristic threats to "take hostages" as part of labor militancy (quoted in another post) are very bad politics, which must reflect poor leadership somewhere. The other temptation is that of money and comfort. Illegal corruption is only a piece of this. The more profound dimension is when people who accept the limits of "realism" take the next step and say, o.k., why not join those who benefit structurally from the legal set-up? The silence on continuing inequality and exploitation which Thami Madinane points out chillingly suggests that this is happening. Yet how many critical intellectuals ensconced in academia are not vulnerable to such criticism too, in some degree? At the same time we should recognize that the transnationals regulate speech: advocate "irresponsible" egalitarian positions and you will reduce their "confidence", which is a threat to take their money and confide in others. The problem isn't only "betrayal" or other motives, but also the structures which allow some motives to be effective while foreclosing other ones.

It is important to keep pointing out inequality and exploitation. That Leninist socialism doesn't work doesn't prove that capitalism and its inequalities are right and should just be accepted; that proposition is a complete non-sequitur. But diagnosis and criticism aren't enough. We need to find new ideas to respond to the new situations. What kinds of international solidarity are possible to fight the power of transnationals & international agencies? If the USIA, the U.S. government more generally, World Bank/IMF etc., have irremediable conflicts of interest, is the same true of all NGOs from the North? Can the quasi-moribund U.S. trade union movement learn something from the successes of South African unions? Or the South Africans from the loss of influence by U.S. unions on the Democratic Party? Is it possible to envisage concretely a type of social order in which the state modifies the conditions of relationship to the means of production and distribution (forms of ownership, forms of contract, forms of recognized corporate/co-operative organization) from those of present-day capitalism, but which do not involve Leninist-style state ownership or command economies? How would such efforts look in Africa, compared to other places (and for different countries in Africa, given the wide range of their economic and social conditions)?

Those of us who want the ANC not to betray its ideals have to help create the conditions and ideas for that to be possible.

Chris Lowe

Message-Id: <$62;
Date: Thu, 16 Feb 1995 18:31:38 -0500
Reply-To: Howard Katzman <katzman@ESCAPE.COM>

Along with Chris and Thami's statemment, let me add...

Whoever thought that the power shift in South Africa would occur the way it did, through negotiations? As Tokyo Sexwale has said, they always thought they would be leading a victorious army into South Africa and take over power.

But negotiations and elections occurred instead. The ANC was not able to totally dictate its needs. It had to share power in Parliament and in the Government with its enemies. It did not receive the 2/3 of the vote it would need to write its own constitution.

On top of this there is a need for help in financing redevelopment in South Africa - to bring "jobs, housing and education" to the masses. This costs money. Do they alienate the businessmen with whom the mangement skills presently lie? Do they beg for international money? If they nationalize business, they will lose an expertize that will help finance the redevelopment and it will take many years to develop the skills for the general population. What happens until then to the masses? And from where will the skills come from if there is no money for training.

Compromises... One does not always like the choices that is forced upon us. May be things will be more to your liking after the first election under a real constitution as opposed to an interim one, where there is a single party in power and responsible and a real opposition to keep them honest.


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