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Alex Callinicos

South Africa after Apartheid

(March 1996)

From International Socialism 2:70, March 1996.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Amid the cynicism and torpor that descended over the globe after it turned out that 1989 had not, after all, ushered in a new world order, South Africa’s first democratic elections in April 1994 shone out like a beacon. In an era when politicians were generally held in profound contempt, the new State President, Nelson Mandela, towered like a colossus. Here at least there was a story that seemed to have a happy ending, as the new ‘rainbow nation’ stepped proudly into the future.

The sweeping victory secured by the African National Congress (ANC) in the elections after all marked the climax of a struggle that had been going on since before the movement’s foundation in 1912. It was a struggle for which Mandela had spent 27 years in prison, a struggle that had been revived by the great Soweto school students’ rising of 16 June 1976, a struggle that, above all, had been taken to even greater heights by the township insurrections and workers’ strikes of 1984–1986. Around the world millions had identified with the cause of the black majority in South Africa, had supported it by taking part in demonstrations and consumer boycotts, and now felt the ANC’s triumph as theirs as well. Apartheid, the barbarous system of racial domination that had made South Africa (in the words of one of its own diplomats) ‘a polecat among nations’, was finally gone.

It will soon be two years since that historic victory. How well has the ANC led Government of National Unity (GNU) fulfilled the hopes raised by its entry to office? Commentators typically approach this question by launching a sort of pre-emptive strike. They talk about the problem of ‘expectations’. By this they mean that the black people who voted for the ANC in April 1994 did so in the belief that the political transformation represented by black majority rule would rapidly usher in a social and economic transformation as well. Having won the vote, they expected from an ANC dominated government jobs, houses, and schools as well. But – say the commentators – these expectations are ‘unrealistic’. The GNU, like governments everywhere, has to worry about enhancing competitiveness and reducing public spending. The masses’ hopes for a rapid improvement in their material conditions will have to be deferred, perhaps indefinitely.

If this argument is correct, it predicts a bleak future for South Africa. In 1990 42 percent of the population lived in poverty. [1] In 1991 South Africa had a Gini co-efficient, which measures the extent of income inequality, of 0.68, the highest in a group of 36 developing countries. That same year the poorest 40 percent of households earned 4 percent of national income, while the richest 10 percent received more than half. [2] In 1995 unemployment among Africans was calculated to be 37 percent – almost certainly an underestimate. [3]

The appalling economic plight of the black majority was summed up recently by the Socialist Workers Organisation of South Africa:

Only one out of five African households have running water BUT every white household has running water.

One quarter of all African households get less than R300 a month. Two thirds get less than the breadline – R900 a month. BUT two thirds of white households get more than R2000 a month.

Two thirds of African children and half of Coloured children live in overcrowded houses BUT only 1 out of 100 white children live in overcrowded conditions.

Less than half of African kids live in a proper brick house. The rest live in shacks or huts BUT most white children live in a brick house. [4]

Leaving in place such poverty and inequality would help to perpetuate the desperation and misery that have produced levels of violence, both political and criminal, making South Africa one of the most dangerous societies in the world. It would also, over time, undermine the political achievements of the ANC led mass movement. To see whether such a grim outcome is inevitable we need, in the first instance, to consider the process that brought about the triumph of April 1994 in the first place.

The path to power

The elections of 26–29 April 1994 were the outcome of a strategic compromise between the two main political actors in South Africa – on the one hand, the African National Congress as the dominant force among the black majority and the embodiment of their aspiration for national liberation; on the other hand, the National Party (NP), the historic party of Afrikaner nationalism, in power since 1948, responsible for turning apartheid into a system, but now pursuing ‘reform’ in close alliance with big business. [5]

That compromise was embodied in the Interim Constitution finally agreed on at the Multi-Party Negotiating Forum in November 1993. This provided the basis on which the country’s first one person, one vote elections were held the following April. Under the settlement, South Africa was to become a non-racial liberal democracy, subject to certain limitations. The most important of these was that during the five year transition period in which the new National Assembly would draft a final constitution a coalition government representing all the parties that won at least 5 percent of the vote would hold office. It is by virtue of this provision that the GNU comprises not merely the ANC, but also the NP, and the Zulu tribalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

The rationale for this compromise settlement reflected both sides’ assessment of the balance of forces, and in particular their shared belief that neither could decisively defeat the other. The risings of 1984–1986 – and the persisting strength shown by the black organised working class during the State of Emergency which brought the insurgency to an end – convinced key figures in the regime that they would have to negotiate with the ANC. After becoming State President in August 1989, the new NP leader, F.W. de Klerk, made the decisive move in February 1990 of unbanning the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), and freeing Mandela, as a prelude to full scale talks.

In the meantime, many township and union activists had concluded after the defeat of the mid-1980s rebellion that the regime could be removed, not by mass insurrection, but by a negotiated settlement. This had always been the long term objective of the exiled ANC leadership in the Zambian capital of Lusaka. Now the conditions were emerging in which this goal could realistically be pursued. But it is clear that the decisive initiative in making contact with the regime was undertaken independently by Mandela himself in Pollsmoor prison.

After an initial meeting with justice minister Kobie Coetsee during a spell in hospital in November 1985, Mandela was separated from his fellow ANC prisoners on his return to gaol. He later recalled:

Immediately in my mind I said: ‘Well, this would be a good opportunity to start negotiations with the government and to maintain this element of secrecy.’ If you are a member of an organisation and your comrades say: ‘Don’t do this,’ whatever your views are, that you have to accept, and that is what I feared. I wanted to confront them [the ANC] with a fait accompli. [6]

While still nominally a prisoner of the South African state, and ignoring the initial objections of the ANC leadership, Mandela held a total of 47 meetings with a secret committee set up by Coetsee on the instructions of State President P.W. Botha. Despite the ground that had thus already been covered by February 1990, the path to a negotiated settlement proved tortuous and very bloody. [7]

The fundamental reason for this lay in the strategy pursued by de Klerk and the NP. It soon became clear that they were not negotiating in good faith. Their aim was, while conceding the formal principles of liberal democracy, to preserve the substance of white economic and political power. Initially, the regime harboured vain hopes of splitting Mandela off from what they believed to be the Communist dominated ANC in exile.

Then it sought to create an electoral alliance between the NP and conservative black organisations, above all Inkatha. All out warfare between ANC and IFP supporters, which had first developed in the townships and squatter settlements of Natal after the 1984–1986 risings, spread to the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging (PWV) region, the industrial and political heart of South Africa centred on Johannesburg, in July–August 1990. Overwhelming evidence rapidly accumulated of the role of a ‘third force’, backed by the security forces and allied to Inkatha, in stoking up the violence. The effect was to disorganise the ANC’s popular base and force it onto the defensive.

To counter this attack the ANC leadership found itself compelled to turn to the masses. After a particularly revolting IFP massacre in the Vaal township of Boipatong in June 1992, the movement returned to the streets. The ANC and its allies in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) had already launched a Mass Action Campaign after the collapse of the first attempt at formal all party talks, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), in May. Cyril Ramaphosa, secretary general of the ANC and the movement’s chief negotiator, explained: ‘We needed to put the entire struggle on a completely different plane, and that plane had to be resorting back to the major power that we had, which was our people.’ [8] On 3–4 August some 4 million workers took part in a massive political general strike. After this demonstration of mass determination the NP could harbour no illusions about the extent and the depth of the ANC’s popular support.

For Mandela and Ramaphosa, however, the Mass Action Campaign was only a brief detour from the negotiating table, a means of showing the regime how strong the ANC’s hand was, and a way of allowing their increasingly angry and impatient supporters to let off a bit of steam. The ‘Leipzig Option’ – the strategy supported by some ANC and SACP leaders of using mass demonstrations to bring down de Klerk – was discredited after one of its main proponents, Ronnie Kasrils, was widely believed to have rashly led marchers into a massacre by soldiers of the Ciskei Bantustan at Bisho in September 1992. [9]

The same month saw a public resumption of contacts between the ANC and the NP (private discussions between Ramaphosa and his government counterpart Roelf Meyer continued throughout the Mass Action Campaign). But in order to secure a summit with Mandela that would agree the basis for carrying on with the negotiations, de Klerk had to make a symbolically crucial concession concerning the release of political prisoners. For Ramaphosa, that ‘without a doubt was the turning point of the whole negotiating process.’ [10] The ANC subsequently made its own major concession when Joe Slovo, chairperson of the SACP, persuaded it to accept the principle of ‘sunset clauses’, i.e. temporary departures from strict democratic principles such as a transitional coalition government that would help to overcome white fears of majority rule. [11]

The final settlement was, however, considerably more favourable to the ANC than de Klerk and his advisers had hoped. This outcome, however, did not derive chiefly from the negotiating skills of Mandela, Ramaphosa and Slovo. Once again it was a consequence of the intervention of the masses. In April 1993 a white fascist assassinated Chris Hani, general secretary of the SACP and one of the most popular ANC leaders. There followed a spontaneous explosion of popular anger. Two stayaways (political general strikes) and numerous demonstrations showed, not only that the black masses overwhelmingly backed the ANC, but that they might escape from anyone’s control. The abyss was opening up before the regime. Mandela, not State President de Klerk, appeared on television to call for calm. Patti Waldmeir of the Financial Times argued that the assassination and the reaction had the effect of ‘permanently tilting the balance in the ANC’s favour and allowing them to extract the concession that elections would be held on April 27 [1994]’. [12]

There was, however, one final stage in the transition to democracy where the masses played a decisive role. The political realignment in 1992–1993 drew the ANC and the NP together, and left the IFP relatively isolated (although there is plenty of evidence of security force complicity in the violence that continued to rage in the townships and squatter camps of Natal and the East Rand almost up to election day itself). Inkatha’s leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Chief Minister of the KwaZulu Homeland, therefore threw his lot in with various other political forces threatened by the end of apartheid. These included principally the white far right. The angry black reaction to Hani’s assassination terrified many whites, and rallied together right wing opponents of de Klerk’s policy in the Afrikaner Volksfront (AVF), under the leadership of General Constand Viljoen, ex-Chief of the South African Defence Force (SADF).

The Freedom Alliance, a strange coalition of Afrikaner and African ultra-conservatives, now took shape. Aside from the AVF and the IFP, the principal backers of the Freedom Alliance were the rulers of two ‘independent’ Bantustans, the Ciskei and Bophuthatswana. Combined with Buthelezi’s control of KwaZulu and of parts of Natal, this gave the opponents of the settlement an extensive territorial grip, and therefore the capacity substantially to disrupt the elections, which the Freedom Alliance threatened to boycott. Viljoen claimed to be training up a formidable military force, and could certainly count on plenty of sympathy in the ranks of the SADF.

The ANC responded to the far right threat, and the escalation of violence as the elections drew near, by offering Viljoen, Buthelezi and their cronies significant constitutional concessions. The Johannesburg Weekly Mail and Guardian argued that these actually worked to de Klerk’s benefit. ‘For the first time the NP will be able to claim some “victories” at the negotiating table’, the newspaper commented. [13] It is hard to say how far this surrender to right wing blackmail would have gone had not the masses intervened.

At the beginning of March 1994 student demonstrations and workers’ strikes paralysed Bophuthatswana. As his police started to mutiny and join the rising, the Homeland’s president, Lucas Mangope, appealed to his Freedom Alliance partner, Viljoen, for help. The general responded by sending thousands of AVF ‘farmers’ to Bophuthatswana. What had been intended as a disciplined military operation disintegrated into chaos as the thugs of the fascist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) joined the expedition, apparently against the wishes of Viljoen and Mangope. But they soon discovered they had chosen the wrong century. The glory days of the Boer republics were over, and their would be heirs were confronting blacks ready and able to fight and win.

Bophuthatswana soldiers refused to supply the AVF with the weapons Mangope had promised them, and threatened to attack the right wingers. The AWB were persuaded to pull out of the Homeland, and were followed slightly later by the AVF force. As they drove in convoys through its capital, Mmabatho, the fascists fired indiscriminately at people in the streets. At a roadblock three AWB men got involved in a shoot out with rebel soldiers and policemen. That night the world saw on television their last moments, as the fascists begged ineffectually for their lives. In a few minutes a giant shadow that hovered threateningly over South Africa’s transition to democracy since the late 1980s – the white far right – was dispersed.

The effects of the Bophuthatswana rising were enormous. Mangope was toppled, and Bophuthatswana was reincorporated into South Africa. [14] Within a few days the Ciskei’s military dictator, Oupa Gqozo, and his Bantustan had suffered the same fate. Viljoen, already uncomfortable with the more unsavoury or demented of his right wing allies – the Nazis of the AWB and the pro-apartheid no hopers of the Conservative Party – used the pretext of the debacle to break with the AVF and launch the Freedom Front to represent the cause of traditional Afrikaner nationalism in the elections. Buthelezi now found himself isolated. Outmanoeuvred by the ANC, who were able to draw into their camp the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini – long impatient with his uncle and prime minister’s tutelage, Buthelezi grudgingly agreed to end his boycott only a week before the elections.

The historic achievement of the April 1994 elections was thus a consequence less of the skill and determination of the ANC leadership (though no one could deny that they had plenty of both), than of mass struggle. It was the risings of the mid-1980s, and what they represented – not merely the incredible courage and elan of the township youth, but the strength and endurance of organised black labour – that had forced de Klerk to the negotiating table in the first place. But even after the great breakthrough of February 1990, further mass action, sometimes orchestrated from the top, more often a result of initiatives from below, was necessary first to strengthen the ANC’s bargaining hand and then to knock out the far right. Mandela’s words to the people as voting began on 26 April were truer than he perhaps knew: ‘This is your day.’

Talk of the ‘problem of expectations’ needs to be considered in this light. The oppressed and exploited – workers, students, unemployed, township and squatter camp dwellers – had won the great victory over apartheid. Whenever they were asked, they made it clear that they had been fighting for more than new laws and a new constitution. They had fought to change their lives dramatically for the better. Often they were prepared to put it in more theoretical terms by saying that they were fighting for socialism as well as national liberation. This was one reason why the red banners of the Communist Party had such a powerful attraction for the more militant workers and youth.

These aspirations deserve better than to be patronised by journalists and ex-Marxist academics who dismiss them as fantasies spun by those who fail to understand the ‘realities’ of the global market and of the kind of voodoo economics promoted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It was the black masses who put Mandela in his official residence at Tuynhuys, all his ministers in their offices and limousines, the members of parliament and of provincial assemblies in their seats. Their ‘expectations’ of a total liberation should serve as the benchmark by which the ‘New South Africa’ is judged.

From mass struggle to reformism

Yet even before the ANC took office in May 1994 it was already clear that it would introduce only limited changes in the social and economic structure of South Africa. The ANC and its close partner in the struggle, the SACP, had long been committed to what came to be known as the two stage strategy. Derived ultimately from Stalinist orthodoxy, this sharply separated the struggle against apartheid from that against capitalism. Its political conclusion was: first win national liberation by means of a broad democratic alliance of all classes of the oppressed population plus anti-apartheid whites; only once that has been achieved should the question of socialism come onto the agenda. [15]

The radicalisation produced by the risings of the mid-1980s and the development of a militant workers’ movement made it harder in practice to keep the two stages separate from one another. Militant workers and youth were, as I have already pointed out, fighting for both national liberation and socialism. In the late 1980s the SACP tended to stress a ‘left’ version of the stages strategy which envisaged an ‘uninterrupted’ process in which the struggle against apartheid would imperceptibly merge into that for socialism. [16] The increasingly imminent prospect after February 1990 of a transfer of political power to the black majority should have made the question of what would happen once national liberation was achieved more pressing.

Yet in fact the closer the end of apartheid approached, the further the objective of socialism receded in the minds of the leaders of the Revolutionary Alliance uniting the ANC, SACP and COSATU. In part this was a consequence of the international political and ideological conjuncture. Stalinism in some form or other tended to form the horizons of the South African left, playing a crucial role in defining its conception of socialism, and offering a picture of the world divided into two blocs, the ‘progressive’ one united behind the Soviet Union and the imperialist one led by the United States. [17] The revolutions in Eastern Europe and the subsequent disintegration of the USSR therefore threw the left into disarray. Joe Slovo succeeded in skilfully distancing the SACP from the debacle in the East by issuing a celebrated pamphlet called Has Socialism Failed? in which he denounced the crimes of Stalinism, but this still left unanswered the question of what should replace the party’s – and more generally the South African left’s – now discredited model of socialism. [18]

The answer, nevertheless, soon became clear – social democracy. The SACP avoided explicitly embracing reformism (it preferred to call itself ‘the Party of Democratic Socialism’), but Slovo in particular moved very quickly to reassure big business that the Revolutionary Alliance did not intend to introduce a planned economy. ‘Socialism and the market are not, as its commonly supposed, opposed to each other in principle,’ he told the Board of Directors of Woolworths. ‘The market is a mechanism for the realisation of value, there is nothing inherently capitalistic about it.’ [19]

Slovo’s stance reflected a more general shift in the left’s stance. Thus in response to right wing attacks on the clause in the ANC’s Freedom Charter calling for ‘nationalisation of monopoly industry’, Alec Erwin, a leading COSATU intellectual and a key figure in the ‘workerist’ left wing of the South African labour movement, wrote: ‘The issue is not one of state versus private ownership. It is whether we restructure our economy so as to minimise unemployment and poverty and maximise the supply of social consumption infrastructure.’ [20]

This restructuring, it was generally agreed, would involve a mixed economy combining the market and planning, and would depend on winning the consent of big capital. The Great Economic Debate launched by the left-liberal Weekly Mail carried, for example, a special supplement called Focus on Social Democracy, with articles such as one entitled Still Lots to Learn From Scandinavia. [21] Bizarrely, the prosperous liberal democracies of northern Europe (themselves increasingly entering a serious crisis) thus became the model for a society with 40 percent unemployment. [22]

In the unions and the left there was increasing support for the concept of a social contract uniting the state, labour and capital around an agreed programme in which the unions would offer wage restraint in exchange for an economic strategy intended to reduce poverty and unemployment. To some extent this idea merely registered existing reality. The strength and militancy shown by the union movement during the Emergency of the late 1980s had even before February 1990 prompted both big business and the regime to move away from a merely repressive response towards one based on institutionalised bargaining between the government and the main forces in ‘civil society’, above all capital and labour.

The ‘Laboria Minute’ of September 1990, which laid out a framework for the reform of the trade union laws, represented the first fruit of this reorientation. COSATU followed this up by deciding to participate in the state’s National Manpower Commission and, when mounting a general strike in November 1991 to protest at the de Klerk government’s imposition of VAT, called for the establishment of a ‘macro-economic negotiating forum’. Derek Keys, de Klerk’s finance minister, responded to the extent of setting up, in November 1992, the National Economic Forum, on which both the unions and big business were represented. The development of West German style social bargaining was formalised with the establishment in February 1995 of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC), whose role was to be that of achieving a consensus between government, employers, unions, and community organisations over various economic and social issues. [23]

This shift towards social democracy was intended by its authors as a means of achieving some genuine social and economic change in favour of the black masses. COSATU’s economic advisers contrasted two ‘accumulation strategies’. The first, sometimes summed up by the slogan, ‘Redistribution through growth’, represented the liberal economic orthodoxy accepted by the NP and its big business allies. This involved a reduction in the economic role of the state (very substantial in South Africa) and extensive privatisation as part of a more general process of restructuring designed to make the country’s manufacturing industries internationally competitive. The economic growth generated by more exports would benefit the black majority by increasing employment and therefore incomes.

To this approach – whose solution to the problem of black poverty was essentially a version of Ronald Reagan’s notorious trickledown effect – the COSATU economists counterposed the alternative of ‘Growth through Redistribution’. This would seek, in Stephen Gelb’s words, ‘to expand both employment creation and the production of basic consumer goods. In other words, rather than separating redistribution and economic growth, the aim would be to achieve growth through the more extensive and more rapid redistribution of incomes and wealth.’ This objective would, however, be achieved not through ‘a direct redistribution of incomes’, but rather through ‘the redistribution of investment’. Capital could, for example, be transferred from speculation in financial markets to the development of ‘labour-intensive light industries’ producing cheap consumer goods, or ‘the expansion of infrastructural services, such as electricity and telephones, to the black townships in particular’. [24]

The result of implementing this strategy would not be a socialist economy, but rather a new ‘accumulation regime’ – a version of capitalism in which the black majority would have more jobs, better living standards, and therefore greater economic and political power. [25] There were, however, those who argued that ‘Growth through Redistribution’ and the broader approach of which it was part could act as a means of achieving socialism.

Thus the Canadian socialist John Saul defended against far left critics such as myself the strategy being pursued by the ANC and its allies as the pursuit of ‘structural reforms’. The latter concept was devised in the 1960s by the well known French centrist André Gorz in order to identify an alternative to both social democratic reformism and what Saul calls ‘any very precipitate plunge into full blown social revolution’. ‘Structural’ reforms are distinguished from ordinary reforms by being part of ‘an emerging project of structural transformation’ and basing themselves on ‘popular initiatives in such a way as to leave a residue of further empowerment – in terms of growing enlightenment/class consciousness, in terms of organisational capacity – for the vast mass of the population, who thus strengthen themselves for further struggles and further victories’. [26]

Saul defended his position with a lot of noise and bluster, widening it into a ‘revolutionary reformism’ for which he claimed (rather unwisely in my view) the inspiration of the writings of the Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitsky. [27] Nevertheless, his argument does have the merit of providing a criterion, offered by one of the ANC’s left supporters, by means of which to appraise its achievements to date in office. To what extent has South Africa’s new government advanced a ‘project of structural transformation’ and led to greater mass ‘empowerment’?

The test of office

The ANC finally crossed the portals of state power in May 1994. It could claim a popular mandate arising from its overwhelming electoral victory (see Table 1). Thanks to this triumph, it not only had a large majority in the National Assembly, but controlled seven of the nine provincial governments set up under the new constitution.

TABLE 1: Results of the Elections of 26–29 April 1994


Percentage of Vote



African National Congress



National Party



Inkatha Freedom Party



Freedom Front



Democratic Party



Pan-Africanist Congress



African Christian Democratic Party



Source: A. Reynolds (ed.), Elections ’94 South Africa (London 1994)]

The ANC had campaigned on the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which set out a number of specific policy objectives intended to advance both ‘social upliftment’ and ‘economic development’ over the following five years. These included:

Here then was an ambitious programme of detailed demands that marked a definite commitment to ‘Growth through Redistribution’. Yet the ANC did not have a free hand in implementing the RDP. The constraints to which it was subject in part were a consequence of the settlement it had negotiated with the representatives of the old order. Under the Interim Constitution, they sat in the new Government of National Unity.

The NP had been remarkably successful in winning one in five votes, and had managed to extend its constituency to include some blacks (notably in the Western Cape, where the Nationalists cynically played on Coloured fears of African domination to win control of the province). It was anyone’s guess how people had really voted in strife torn KwaZulu/Natal, but in a post-election deal over the disputed returns the ANC conceded the IFP 50 percent of the vote there, thereby also giving it control of the provincial government and a substantial block of seats in the National Assembly.

And so F.W. de Klerk was appointed Second Deputy President, and Mangosuthu Buthelezi Minister of Home Affairs, while other members of their parties held cabinet posts.

But the ANC leadership were far more fundamentally constrained by the logic of the strategy they had adopted. The social democratic orientation adopted by the Revolutionary Alliance implied a commitment to working with, rather than confronting, let alone expropriating, capital. Mandela, Slovo and their comrades had worked hard to reassure big business that they could be trusted with political power. Their efforts were rewarded with success. A poll of 100 top business leaders published in December 1993 revealed that 68 percent wanted to see Mandela as president, 32 percent de Klerk, and none Buthelezi. [28]

This process of reassurance continued once the elections were over. The new government had to show its reliability in deeds as well as words. Only thus could local capitalists be encouraged to keep their money in the country, and foreign ones be persuaded to invest there. Mandela retained as his finance minister Derek Keys, the ‘apolitical’ businessman whom de Klerk had appointed to this post. The Financial Times reported that Mandela had made this decision ‘despite opposition from within his own African National Congress’, and that in doing so he had:

delighted investors, businessmen and white South Africans Nothing else would have persuaded the outside world – not to mention sceptical South Africans – of his commitment to free-market economics and political moderation. Again and again, Mr Mandela has stressed the need to restore business confidence and attract foreign investment. Yesterday he took the most concrete steps possible towards achieving those goals. [29]

Keys soon left the government for personal reasons, to be replaced by the equally conservative white banker Chris Liebenberg. It might seem as if these appointments were counterbalanced by those of two left wing ex-trade unionists to two other key economic ministerial positions. Jay Naidoo, former general secretary of COSATU, became Minister in the State President’s Office with responsibility for the RDP, while Alec Erwin took the post of Keys’s and later Liebenberg’s deputy. It soon turned out, however, that they were not serving as red commissars keeping a watchful eye on the capitalist Minister of Finance.

Barely two months after the GNU took office, Patti Waldmeir of the Financial Times could write, ‘With his well-cut suits and carefully tailored vocabulary, the new-look Mr Naidoo is a figure of flawless economic orthodoxy. The firebrand trade unionist and militant socialist has become a persuasive advocate of fiscal and financial discipline.’ As for Erwin:

to hear Mr Erwin defend the need for discipline – with a fervour and passion few orthodox economists could equal – is to believe his conversion is genuine ‘Our commitment to fiscal discipline isn’t just there because it looks good,’ he told his first press briefing after entering public office. ‘Fiscal discipline is fundamental to the strategy’ Once a doctrinaire socialist he has made his peace with capitalism. [30]

The GNU’s commitment to ‘fiscal discipline’ was reflected in the fact that the R37.5 billion allocated to the RDP in 1994–1999 were to be found from savings in other government spending. But the government’s first full budget, in March 1995, showed how far the ANC had gone in accepting free market economics. Accompanied by the abolition of various apartheid era restrictions of the export of capital, notably the financial rand, the budget was designed especially with foreign investors in mind. The Weekly Mail commented, ‘That the focus of the Budget is the deficit before borrowing rather than a wealth tax, or some other unspeakable horror, speaks volumes about the the newfound conservatism of the ANC members of the government of national unity.’ [31]

Liebenberg did make some effort to reallocate state spending towards ‘social upliftment’. Defence’s share of the budget was reduced from 8.7 percent to 7.2 percent, while housing’s rose from just over 1 percent to nearly 3 percent. But at the same time, a change in the basis on which provincial governments’ social expenditure was funded by Pretoria meant a shift in favour of the more sparsely populated, predominantly rural provinces to the disadvantage of the metropolitan regions. According to the Weekly Mail:

In both health and education, formulae were devised to move the money around – but in some areas, rigid application of the formulae may lead to hardship [sic], such as Gauteng [the PWV region] and the Western Cape. In those two provinces, for instance, cutbacks in education spending mean that thousands of teachers may find themselves without jobs. [32]

Moreover, the military – renamed the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) – found some rather surprising new patrons to defend their interests in bureaucratic infighting. The Minister and Deputy Minister of Defence in the new government had been leading figures in the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) – respectively Joe Modise, former MK commander-in-chief, and Ronnie Kasrils, who had been MK’s chief of intelligence. Kasrils was a romantic figure: when he found himself on the run from the security forces even after February 1990 he had become known as the ‘Red Pimpernel’. He had been a leading figure among those in the ANC/SACP who were critical of the priority given to negotiations over mass struggle. [33]

Once bitter foes of the apartheid war machine, in office Modise and Kasrils became fervent defenders of the SANDF’s demands for new equipment. The navy’s plans to spend R1.69 billion on four corvettes caused particular controversy. Sounding like any NATO defence minister justifying his generals’ and admirals’ latest expensive toys, Kasrils argued:

International crises can break out at amazing speed and every time they surprise us We’re living in a world where there’s greater competition for scarce resources – and that’s a major cause of war. Two weeks ago, Spain and Canada had a flare-up over fish. We’ve got a billion-rand fishing industry providing thousands of jobs and this will grow because our seas are rich. [34]

While Kasrils was striving to make the seas safe for South African fishing boats, how were the impoverished black majority faring? Housing was in many ways the key issue. According to a report submitted by Mandela to the United Nations World Summit on Social Development in March 1995, 15 percent of Africans lived in shacks, 17 percent in outbuildings, 14 percent in huts, 17 percent in hostels, and 45 percent in houses. Only 35 percent had flush lavatories. [35] Consistent with his policy of placing representatives of the left in sensitive economic posts, Mandela appointed Joe Slovo Minister of Housing. Soon after he had taken office the Financial Times reported:

Mr Slovo believes that 50,000 houses can be erected this year, rising to 125,000 in 1995, 175,000 in the following year and 225,000 in 1997.

How close Mr Slovo comes to reaching these targets will be one of the yardsticks by which black South Africans will judge the ANC at the next election. [36]

The desperate shortage of housing in the PWV region was indicated by the fact that some 200,000 people had established new squatter settlements in the years before the 1994 election. The ANC’s victory encouraged more to occupy empty land. In early June 1994 Johannesburg City Council destroyed a shack settlement at Liefde en Vrede, leaving several hundred without shelter on one of the coldest nights of the harsh Highveld winter. The PWV premier, Tokyo Sexwale, condemned the evictions, but Slovo said that some of the land invasions had been orchestrated ‘by outsiders who do not have the best interests of [the squatters] at heart’, and the provincial land ministry claimed that the occupations could ‘create a climate conducive to “Third Force” exploitation’. [37]

This hostility to initiatives from below was also reflected in the deal Slovo struck with the Association of Mortgage Lenders in October 1994. The banks and building societies agreeing to make up to R2 billion available in loans for low cost housing and to end their racist practice of ‘red-lining’, ie refusing to lend to anyone wishing to live in certain black areas. In exchange, Slovo undertook to break the ‘culture of non-payment’ – the boycotts of payments on rents, services, and mortgage bonds that had developed in the townships during the mid-1980s and had continued after February 1990 and indeed April 1994. ‘We cannot allow the spirit of populism to dominate our practice,’ he declared, promising ‘to restore the rule of law’.

Banks would be given full government backing in their efforts to repossess the houses of bond defaulters, and would be indemnified where ‘abnormal township conditions’ made it impossible for them to foreclose. Moreover, the Weekly Mail reported, ‘the state will effectively take over the red-lining function by withholding mortgage indemnities in unstable, violent and crime-ridden areas – like Katlehong on the East Rand – where the commercial risk is unacceptable.’ [38] The emergence of what the same paper called ‘Slovo, the Boycott Buster,’ won him the praise, after his death in January 1995, of Adriaan Vlok, brutal NP Minister of Law and Order for much of the 1980s:

He very soon realised that to develop our country and to start building houses, you need money – and to get this, economic development is a prerequisite.

He also realised that it was impossible for the state to care for all the needs of everybody. Therefore he was one of the first ANC members to point out – clearly and directly – that people must pay their rent and service charges and plead for greater private-sector involvement. [39]

These compromises might have been acceptable if they actually delivered new houses. A crash public house building programme would have been a real step towards achieving the Revolutionary Alliance’s ostensible objective of Growth through Redistribution. This would not only have begun to meet the popular demand for housing (estimated at 1 million in PWV alone) but would have created new jobs in the construction sector, in turn increasing demand and employment in consumer industries. Instead Slovo and his successor concentrated on drawing up blueprints and negotiating with the private sector. According to Anton Harber, editor of the Weekly Mail:

Asked in February [1995] how many houses had been built since the ANC came to power, the new Minister of Housing, Sankie Nkondo, had to say it was only about 800. (It would take 550 houses a day – including weekends, public holidays and builders’ holidays – for the ANC to meet its promises of 1 million houses within five years.) [40]

By October 1995 10,600 state funded houses had been built that year, compared to Slovo’s target of 125,000. [41] The failure to deliver on the ANC’s housing promises was symptomatic of a more general malaise. The RDP Ministry – supposedly the powerhouse of change – became a watchword for slow moving bureaucratic procedures justified by incomprehensible gobbledegook. One critical economist pointed to the snail’s pace at which the R2.5 billion RDP Fund was being spent:

[C]onsidering the fact that only 55 percent of the 1994/5 RDP Fund was allocated (of which only a small fraction was actually spent), indications are that the RDP Fund process has become snarled up in red tape.

Some analysts are even suggesting that the net effects of the RDP has been to slow social spending. [42]

Reviewing the GNU’s record from a generally sympathetic viewpoint in April 1995, Harber wrote:

After a year in office, South Africa’s political leaders are talking defensively. Minister Jay Naidoo speaks, in the language of South Africa’s new bureaucrats, about the lack of capacity, the need for rigorous business plans, the demands of fiscal discipline, the absence of effective local government, and other factors that have slowed down implementation of the Reconstruction and Development Programme.

They have become defensive because if you measure the success of the Government of National Unity in purely numerical terms – the number of houses built, the number of people who have access to free health care or potable water – then it scores disturbingly low.

Apart from a few showy (and important) presidential projects, such as the provision of a daily peanut butter sandwich to schoolkids and free health care for infants, all the key ministries such as housing, health and education will tell you that they are still at the stage of policy formulation and structural planning, prior to the actual implementation of the RDP. [43]

Elsewhere than on the critical social and economic front the picture was the same – the GNU has failed to impose a radical change of direction. One of the most striking examples was in the area of foreign policy. Under the feeble guidance of Alfred Nzo, one of the many mediocrities from the ANC’s bureaucracy in exile placed in senior ministerial positions thanks to the patronage of the ambitious First Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki, the Department of Foreign Affairs became a symbol of conservative inertia.

Mbeki was personally responsible for cultivating friendly relations with the Nigerian military regime (even though the day Mbeki met its head, General Sani Abacha, during a visit to Nigeria, 43 people were publicly executed by firing squad). When, at the end of October 1995, a military tribunal in Nigeria sentenced Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other pro-democracy activists to death, Mandela opposed any attempt to isolate Nigeria, arguing instead for a policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’. The execution of the activists ten days later was thus, among other things, a public slap in the face for the South African president.

‘Quiet diplomacy’ had strong echoes of the policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with the apartheid regime pursued by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. One of Saro-Wiwa’s lawyers told Mandela in a letter, ‘Were quiet diplomacy pursued in South Africa I doubt you would be alive today.’ The hapless Deputy Foreign Minister, Aziz Pahad, was left to defend the GNU’s policy, explaining, ‘We do not see anything wrong in principle with constructive engagement, but that does not mean weak constructive engagement.’ [44]

In other areas as well the GNU pursued policies which could hardly be described as designed to achieve ‘structural transformation’. Using wildly inflated police figures, home affairs minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi enthusiastically launched a campaign against ‘illegal immigrants’ from other parts of Africa, mostly neighbouring countries devastated by the apartheid regime’s policies of destabilisation in the 1980s. When local and foreign capitalists complained about the undeniably appalling levels of crime in South Africa, the government did not respond that these were an inevitable consequence of the massive inequalities that had, for example, set the impoverished townships and squatter settlements of Gauteng alongside the plush white suburbs of Northern Johannesburg. Instead the ANC took a leaf from Tony Blair’s book and campaigned on the slogan, ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’, in the November 1995 local government elections. One ANC leader, Gauteng premier Tokyo Sexwale, went much further, calling for a referendum on the restoration of the death penalty.

The gravy train

And then there was the matter of the ‘gravy train’. As in former colonies on attaining independence, the installation of an ANC led government was accompanied by an influx into well paid positions in the state apparatus of supporters of the liberation movement – both as conventional civil servants and in the form of the mass of consultants and ‘change operatives’ that surrounded the new ministers. One admittedly cynical and unsympathetic observer, the South African born Oxford don R.W. Johnson, declared that ‘the fact is that power in South Africa is being transferred to the same bureaucratic bourgeoisie that took power elsewhere in Africa’. [45]

Parliament accepted a report recommending that MPs should be paid ‘market related’ salaries – R16,000 a month, compared to the R900 basic minimum for public sector workers. When Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, attacked the ‘gravy train’, the ANC parliamentary caucus declared that criticism of MPs’ salaries was ‘racist’. Tutu responded by asking, ‘Have you noticed my complexion?’ [46]

The most embarrassing single scandal to affect the GNU in its first year concerned Allan Boesak, the best known Coloured politician in the ANC. After Boesak had fronted the ANC’s unsuccessful election campaign in the Western Cape, Mandela nominated him as South African ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. It then emerged that Boesak had secretly diverted over R400,000 donated by Scandinavian charities from the Children’s Trust, over which he presided, to his separate Foundation for Peace and Justice, where it was used, for example, to help pay off his mortgage.

Like John Major hanging on to one of his sleazy ministers, Mandela insisted on defending Boesak to the bitter end. Even after Boesak had been forced to resign as ambassador designate in February 1995, the president seized on an incompetent official report exonerating him to declare, ‘Allan Boesak is one of the most gifted young men in the country he deserves a very high diplomatic post.’ [47] The ANC was, however, compelled to respond to the scandals by seeking to tighten up its own ethics code and the rules governing MPs’ extra-parliamentary earnings.

Big business also helped to power the gravy train. As Anton Harber put it, ‘[t]he role of the private sector has been to try to create a few extremely wealthy and powerful black individuals who would provide a bulwark against accusations that South Africa’s most powerful companies are all-white. So white business is financing and advising a line-up of instant millionaires.’ [48]

Other motives were at work as well – for example, the ancient one of removing opposition to important projects by greasing the right palms. Sol Kerzner controls Sun International (SI), the leisure empire whose most famous asset is Sun City in Bophuthatswana. Despite being wanted by the police on charges of bribing former Transkei president George Mantanzima, he was able to stay out of gaol and cultivate a very catholic range of political contacts. According to the Weekly Mail:

Kerzner has retained high-level connections in both the previous and current governments. He was a friend of former Bophuthatswana president Lucas Mangope, in whose territory he made the foundations of his fortune, the Matanzima brothers in the Transkei, and the late Ciskei ruler, Lennox Sebe. He attended Deputy President Thabo Mbeki’s 50th birthday party and was an honoured guest at Mandela’s inauguration.

Last month [i.e. October 1995] it emerged in KwaZulu-Natal that a new gambling consortium, African Sun International, in which SI is involved, is linked to people close to the provincial government. They include Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s son ‘Zuzi’, Finance MEC [Member of the Executive Council] Snezele Mhulungu, ANC stalwart Walter Sisulu and former aide to F.W. de Klerk, Richard Carter. [49]

Much of the proved corruption of ANC politicians was petty stuff. It paled by comparison with that of the old NP regime and its Bantustan hangers on, let alone with that inherent in the capitalist system itself. [50] Nevertheless, the gravy train was a symptom of the ANC leadership’s alienation from those who had elected it, and who were waiting impatiently for real improvements in their lives.

Managing capitalism

’Structural reforms’ in South Africa would, John Saul argued, be part of ‘an emerging project of structural transformation’. But the longer the ANC held office the harder it became to deny that it was, in effect, pursuing a free market policy of Redistribution through Growth. One leading left intellectual, Eddie Webster, conceded that ‘the Government of National Unity has accepted the macro-economic constraints of the liberal international economic order’. [51]

This was evident not simply in what the GNU failed to do – the snail’s pace at which the RDP was implemented – but also in what it did do. Thus the March 1995 budget provided for public sector pay to rise by 3.25 percent, implying a 6 percent cut in real wages for most workers. Mandela defended the wage cut, saying, ‘Without tightening our belts it will be difficult to resolve our economic problems.’ [52] Meanwhile, in June 1995 Trade and Industry Minister Trevor Manuel announced, as part of South Africa’s implementation of the latest round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, substantial cuts in tariffs likely to lead to massive job cuts in the textile, clothing and motor industries.

One symptom of the drift of policy was the government’s U-turn on privatisation. Before April 1994 the Revolutionary Alliance had opposed the NP government’s efforts to privatise some of the large number of parastatals (or nationalised industries). The RDP promised to ‘reverse privatisation programmes that are contrary to the public interest’. But, after an extensive campaign mounted by big business, Thabo Mbeki announced in December 1995 that he was to preside over a new cabinet committee designed to speed up the ‘restructuring’ of the state sector. This would involve inviting ‘strategic equity partners to join our public corporations’ – ie minority private shareholdings in such plum parastatals as Telkom and South African Airways. [53] The Financial Times reported that ‘[t]he cabinet has already decided that the proceeds from any sales would be used to reduce official debt The private sector has warmly welcomed the government’s announcement.’ [54]

This shift represented a marked victory for big business. While broadly supporting the GNU, business leaders pushed for faster moves in a free market direction. Thus they criticised finance minister Liebenberg’s target for the budget deficit – 5.8 percent of Gross Domestic Product in 1995-1996 – as too high. ‘There is a strong view within the business community that attempts to reduce the budget deficit should be accelerated,’ claimed the South African Chamber of Business (SACOB) in December 1995. This would require deep cuts in public spending. Yet at the same time Ray Parsons, SACOB’s director-general, admitted that the upturn in the economy – which grew by 3 percent in 1995 and was forecast to expand by 4 percent in 1996 – represented ‘jobless growth’. Only 50,000 of the 350,000 new job seekers to enter the labour market in 1995 had found work. ‘A key characteristic of the current economic upturn is that the benefit of the growth that has been experienced so far has been confined to a relatively small proportion of the population,’ Parsons said. [55]

The logic of Redistribution through Growth was that a flourishing free market economy would generate jobs and prosperity for the poor. But, nearly two years after Mandela’s inauguration, there were no signs of any such trickledown in South Africa. The growth rates delivered by Liebenberg’s and Erwin’s pursuit of economic orthodoxy were far below the 8 to 10 percent annual increase in GNP which labour minister Tito Mboweni estimated was necessary to reduce unemployment substantially and to provide jobs for new labour market entrants. [56] Meanwhile big business was demanding from the GNU policies – in particular spending cuts – that would instead increase unemployment.

And what of the foreign investment that free market policies were meant to attract? One economist estimated capital inflows in 1995 at 2.5 percent of gross domestic product. But much of this was speculative money used to buy bonds and shares that could leave the country as quickly as it had entered it. Moreover, although R2.5 billion worth of foreign direct investment was made in the first half of 1995, Alan Hirsch of the Department of Trade and Industry admitted that ‘there is almost a total lack of foreign investment in outward-oriented manufacturing’, the key sector in any strategy for improving South Africa’s long term competitiveness. [57]

The Left in disarray

Here, one would have thought, was a situation ripe for a challenge from the left. And, in a country with the most powerful trade union movement in Africa, closely allied with one of the last mass Communist Parties in the world, one could see the political forces capable of mounting such a challenge. Yet – astonishingly, disgracefully – no such challenge emerged.

In part, this was a reflection of the close links binding the SACP to the ANC. Often NP propagandists and liberal journalists had demonised the party, seeing it as a sinister demiurge controlling Congress from behind the scenes. [58] But, whatever might have been true in the past, by the 1990s the SACP was no longer a tight Stalinist organisation. The lines of political division within the broader movement cut through the party as well. Thus, when one SACP leader, Ronnie Kasrils, advocated the ‘Leipzig Option’ – mass action to bring down the NP – after the collapse of CODESA and the Boipatong massacre, he was challenged by another, Jeremy Cronin. It was the party chair, Joe Slovo, who persuaded the ANC to accept ‘sunset clauses’ acknowledging white claims, while its general secretary, Chris Hani, was taking a much more radical stance. Though strongly supported by the best organised workers and the left intelligentsia, the SACP had become a relatively loose social democratic organisation.

There were some efforts to raise the SACP’s distinct political profile. Thus a Socialist Conference for Reconstruction and Development met in Johannesburg in mid-November 1994. It had been convened by the SACP and COSATU, and, as the title suggests, was intended to operate within the framework of the RDP. ‘What we need now is the deepening and consolidation of April,’ Cronin told the conference. [59] Though this approach was strongly contested by representatives of the far left present, the most striking feature of the whole affair was its low key character. The organisers restricted the attendance to a mere 150. This hardly suggested that the mass organisations behind the conference were giving much priority to hammering out an independent socialist strategy. [60]

More than the SACP’s commitment to the Revolutionary Alliance was involved here. The bulk of the left no longer had any conception of what their alternative was to the existing capitalist society. This ideological disarray was summed up by a throwaway remark by Joe Slovo – in many ways the key socialist intellectual in South Africa, central leader of the SACP, ex-Chief of Staff of MK, the ANC’s chief strategic thinker and one of its main negotiators with the NP – reported after his death in January 1995: ‘Socialism can come later when I have discovered what it is.’ [61]

There were, however, organisations to the left of the SACP still willing to fight for socialism. The South African far left was, however, crippled both by its negligible numbers and influence and by, in the main, a highly sectarian attitude towards the ANC and the SACP. This latter attitude was well expressed by the decision of the Workers Organisation for Socialist Action (WOSA) to stand candidates in the April 1994 elections. At a time when the main line of political polarisation was between, on the one hand, the ANC as the embodiment of the masses’ hopes of liberation, and, on the other, the representatives of the old order – the NP and Inkatha – this was an act of sectarian folly, for which WOSA (in the shape of its electoral front, the Workers List Party) was justly punished by receiving a miserable 4,169 votes. [62] The Socialist Workers Organisation (formerly the International Socialists of South Africa), sister organisation of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, was careful not to cut itself off from ANC and SACP supporters, but it was far too small to present itself as a credible alternative to the Revolutionary Alliance.

In the absence of any powerful socialist challenge to the GNU’s free market policies, popular impatience found expression chiefly in the unlikely person of Winnie Mandela. Disgraced for her role in the 1989 murder by her bodyguards of a young boy, separated from her husband and compelled to give up her ANC posts in 1992, she nonetheless bounced back, and was appointed Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture, Science and Technology in May 1994. She also recaptured her position as president of the ANC’s Women’s League. This comeback reflected her success in cultivating a popular base among the most impoverished of the ANC’s supporters. Thus squatters in the East Rand shack settlement of Phola Park called Mandela ‘Mother’ on her regular visits to offer desperately needed material assistance provided through her Co-ordinated Anti-Poverty Programme.

Winnie Mandela was, moreover, a leading figure in an ANC faction that came to be known as the ‘populists’. These included Peter Mokaba, ex-president of the ANC Youth League, and Bantu Holomisa, who, after being pro-ANC military ruler of the Transkei, was appointed Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs in the GNU. They had links with elements in the SACP – notably Chris Hani, until his assassination, and Harry Gwala, the tough Stalinist who, before his death in June 1995, was one of the main ANC leaders in the killing fields of KwaZulu/Natal.

While none actually opposed the negotiating process, they expressed impatience at its slow progress, and backed popular demands for rapid change. They were also more willing to indulge in anti-white rhetoric. While such language was out of keeping with the ANC’s traditions of non-racialism, it was popular with the rank and file. During the bloody and protracted transition to democracy in the early 1990s, PAC slogans – of which the most famous was ‘One Settler, One Bullet’ – were taken up by angry ANC supporters. Peter Mokaba made himself notorious when, at Hani’s funeral in April 1993, he terrified whites by leading the chant, ‘Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer’. (Embarrassed ANC spin doctors subsequently explained what Mokaba wanted to kill was ‘the system’, not individual whites, but somehow this didn’t ring quite true.)

Populists such as Winnie Mandela and Holomisa nevertheless received ministerial posts in part because it was too dangerous to exclude them from the new government. As President Lyndon Johnson said of J. Edgar Hoover: ‘Better to have him in the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.’ Moreover, they enjoyed a powerful backer in the shape of Thabo Mbeki. The Weekly Mail explained: ‘While he is usually associated with the more conservative wing of the party, he has at crucial times relied on the support of Winnie Mandela and some of her more militant associates’. [63] Thus, at the ANC’s December 1994 congress, the Youth League and the Women’s League had backed Mbeki against his chief rival, Cyril Ramaphosa, even though he belonged to ‘much the same pragmatic ideological camp as Ramaphosa’, in his successful bid for the post of National Chairman, and – in effect – heir apparent to Nelson Mandela. [64] Despite an attempt by Mandela to impose his own nominees on the congress, the populists did very well in the elections to the ANC National Executive Committee.

Nevertheless, in the early months of 1995 a crisis developed around Winnie Mandela’s role in the government. A series of factors were involved – rows involving her high handed behaviour in the Women’s League and another ANC affiliate, the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa, allegations of corruption (which were used to justify an illegal police raid on her home), and a speech she made attacking the slow pace of change. Nelson Mandela made two unsuccessful attempts to sack her. The first time, in February, Mbeki talked him out of it. The second time, in April, the unlikely figure of Buthelezi came to Winnie Mandela’s rescue, arguing that, as a leader of one of the governing parties, he had not, as the constitution required, been consulted over her dismissal. Despite these fiascos, she was finally removed.

The Weekly Mail welcomed the prospect of Winnie Mandela’s dismissal as the ‘Fall of a Greedy Elite’. [65] Undoubtedly there were serious allegations of corruption against not only her, but also against Mokaba over the National Tourism Foundation he had set up with donor funds but which subsequently went bust. Indeed Winnie Mandela was no socialist. She lived a luxurious lifestyle, and her politics were based on no serious class analysis of South African society. She encouraged her supporters to look to her for improvements of their lot, rather than to organise for themselves. Her unholy alliance with Buthelezi over her dismissal, moreover, probably discredited her with many who had previously looked to her.

None of this, however, can alter the fact that Winnie Mandela was the only prominent figure in the Revolutionary Alliance to give sharp and clear expression to the masses’ demands for rapid and dramatic change. To their everlasting shame, the socialist intellectuals and trade union and community activists who had emerged in the 1970s and 1980s to create a powerful left in South Africa had, by contrast, stayed silent. For all her many faults, Winnie Mandela had acted as a lightning conductor for popular aspirations. Yet she offered no coherent alternative to the GNU, merely a more radical version of the ANC’s nationalism. From where could a real alternative come?

The Mandela government and the workers’ movement

From the long historical view, the ANC’s victory represented the culmination of the great wave of national liberation movements whose rebellion against colonial domination is one of the grand themes of the 20th century. At the same time, however, the ANC is set apart from other nationalist movements by its close alliance with a powerful and independent working class movement. This distinctive feature is itself a reflection of the peculiarities of South African historical development, and in particular of the way in which industrial capitalism established itself from the late 19th century onwards through promoting institutions of racial domination that after 1948 were elaborated into the apartheid system. By a happy historical irony, the very success of segregation and apartheid in promoting the development of modern capitalism in South Africa gave rise to a black working class whose growing economic power underlay the popular insurgencies of the 1970s and 1980s. [66]

The principal organisational expression of this power was the trade union movement which emerged after the Durban strikes of January–February 1973. Its strongest wing was COSATU, closely allied to the ANC from its inception in 1985. The importance of the unions to the nationalist movement was demonstrated after the emergency imposed in June 1986 caused the collapse of the various community based organisations – civic associations, youth and student congresses, etc. – that had flourished during the township risings of the mid-1980s. The civics in particular never fully recovered from this setback.

Thereafter COSATU served as the backbone of the ANC led mass movement, for example, mobilising for the stayaways of 1992–3, and, in the Witwatersrand at least, providing the cadre of shop stewards who formed teams of canvassers during the 1994 elections. The presence of ex-trade union leaders such as Naidoo and Erwin in important ministerial posts, and the important role played by the former mine workers’ leader Ramaphosa as ANC secretary general provided some indication of COSATU’s contribution to the nationalist movement. (Indeed, no less than 50 COSATU leaders, many of them very senior officials, took up political office after April 1994. [67])

Following the elections, the Financial Times acknowledged the strength of the organised working class: ‘With 3.5 million members, or 26 percent of the economically active population, the unions are a leading force in society.’ [68] The development even under de Klerk of institutionalised social bargaining was an acknowledgement of this fact. To that extent Eddie Webster is right to highlight what he calls ‘the multi-layered institutionalised bargaining process between classes’ as a distinctive feature of post-apartheid South Africa. He goes on to argue that ‘[t]his unique combination in the Third World of a powerful and strategic labour movement in alliance with a left-centre government allows one to envisage the emergence of a social-democratic programme’ that, while not challenging ‘the fact of capitalist economic ownership’, would promote ‘equity-led growth’ based on ‘tripartite agreements between labour, management and government’. [69]

The main evidence Webster could offer in support of this hope was the new Labour Relations Bill announced by the Labour Minister, Tito Mboweni, in February 1995. Certainly this sought to take South Africa further along the road of corporatist bargaining. In addition to industry wide negotiations between employers and unions through Bargaining Councils (a new name for the Industrial Councils set up by General Smuts in 1923), every workplace with more than 100 employees would be required to set up a Workplace Forum to promote the sharing of information and decisions; moreover, the details of the new labour law were to be hammered out by the concerned parties at the main social-bargaining body, NEDLAC.

The bill, however, had a number of negative features. Unlike the old apartheid era legislation, it did not place employers under a duty to bargain. Though the right to strike was recognised, it was denied to workers providing ‘essential services’ and ‘maintenance services’: the latter was a new category, covering the potentially very broad range of activities whose interruption would lead to the ‘physical destruction of plant, machinery or the working area’. Employers were given the right to lock out, and to hire scab labour. Moreover, the existence of a Workplace Forum would impose restrictions on industrial action. Unorganised workers and those in small workplaces were left out in the cold. Only a registered union could organise a picket, and employees in workplaces with less than ten trade union members were denied the right to a shop steward. [70]

In any case, the GNU’s willingness to institutionalise social bargaining came with a price tag – what Derek Keys, Mandela’s first finance minister, called ‘a tacit, never expressed understanding’ under which the unions would restrain their wage demands in exchange for the social reforms promised in the RDP. [71] In fact, the new government made its demands for pay restraint up front. After the March 1995 budget called for a 6 percent cut in the real wages of public sector workers, the Financial Times praised the GNU for ‘the combative attitude it is taking towards pay demands’, and went on:

One of the most serious concerns about the country’s long-term ability to compete internationally was that the government which took office last May would prove too sympathetic to the demands of organised labour.

It is slowly dawning on the unions that this supposition might not be entirely correct. [72]

Neither the GNU’s tough line on pay nor COSATU’s commitment to a social contract prevented workers from going on strike. On the contrary, as Brian Fowlis put it, ‘the “New South Africa” was faced with a massive strike-wave only weeks after the election … the action showed the labour movement to be less in awe of the ANC-led government than might have been expected: the sheer size and its widespread nature, as well as its timing...can leave no other explanation’. [73]

Some 3.9 million strike days were ‘lost’ in South Africa in 1994 – up from the previous year, but below the 4.2 million in 1992. [74] Given both the effective disappearance of the political stayaways that were so characteristic of the ‘struggle years’ of the 1980s and the coming to office of a government strongly supported by the organised working class and stuffed with its former leaders, this figure represented a formidable degree of militancy. Workers showed in practice their vision of a transformation that went well beyond winning the rights of political citizenship.

At the centre of their immediate preoccupations was pay. In the first nine months of 1995 wage disputes were responsible for 93 percent of all strikes. In fact 1995 saw quite a sharp fall in the level of the industrial struggle. There were only 870,000 strike days ‘lost’ in the first three quarters of the year, compared to a five year average of 2.6 million. But beneath these figures was a marked shift in the pattern of the economic class struggle. Strikes were concentrated for the first time in the public sector and the parastatals. This reflected to some degree the fact that the new government had lifted the old regime’s ban on public sector strikes. But, more importantly, it was a consequence of the fact that state workers’ wage increases were being held below the rate of inflation, while workers in the private sector, where union organisation was strongest, were able to win settlements of around 10 to 12 percent, which kept their pay in line with prices. The third quarter of 1995 saw a sharp rise in strike activity compared to the very low levels recorded in the first half of the year (775,000 strike days between July and September) with two especially bitter disputes involving nurses and municipal workers in Gauteng province (formerly PWV). [75]

Its attitude towards strikes was a key test of whether the ANC in office was pursuing a strategy of ‘structural reform’ involving what John Saul calls the ‘empowerment’ of the masses. As André Gortz, the theorist of this strategy, put it, ‘[t]he emancipation of the working class can become a total objective for the workers, warranting total risk, only if in the course of the struggle they have learned something about self-management, initiative and collective decision – in a word, if they have a foretaste of what emancipation means’. [76]

Far, however, from seeing in the strikes an opportunity for workers to get a ‘foretaste’ of their ‘emancipation’, the government bitterly attacked any manifestation of direct action on the ground. The police, armed with all the brutal apparatus familiar from the apartheid era of guns, batons, dogs, and teargas, were regularly mobilised against strikers.

Opening parliament in February 1995, Mandela made a point of attacking violence by striking workers. In April 1995 he denounced workers’ and students’ protests at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits): ‘Where we have put our foot down is where people use the right of protest to commit crimes, to destroy property, to take hostages, to interfere with the rights of other students.’ And when policemen in the Transkei mutinied, he ordered the SANDF in to crush them. ‘I told them, if you have to use live bullets, use them,’ he recalled in a subsequent interview. [77] (This threat was not an idle one: when black policemen at Orlando East station in Soweto went on strike in January 1995 in protest against their racist treatment, the all white riot squad from Krugersdorp was called in; it opened fire on the strikers, killing one and injuring others, and then arrested them, beating up and insulting some. [78])

ANC leaders more junior than Mandela displayed the same hostility towards strikes. Thus Philip Dexter, an MP and former official of the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), attacked the Gauteng nurses’ strike. ‘Previous industrial action including in the public sector, took place in the context of apartheid,’ he explained, under ‘a government openly hostile to black workers and their aspirations. The ANC is the complete opposite of this.’ Admittedly, ‘public service workers do have legitimate grievances’, but these should wait upon the creation of a ‘Public Service Forum’ pursuing ‘a strategy of co-determination between the government as employer and representative of the people’s will and the public service workers, together with other directly affected interest groups’. [79]

Once again workers were being told to wait for a rosier tomorrow.

In fact, the striking nurses had already had an experience of ‘co-determination’ when the health unions accepted a pay deal at the Public Service Bargaining Council which gave the lowest paid workers a 22 percent increase, but better paid workers (i.e. those earning R2,000 a month or more) only 5 percent. So the professional nurses, who belonged to this latter group, went on strike rather than accept a pay cut. The Weekly Mail commented: ‘The placatory tone usually present when ANC cabinet ministers face similar issues has been noticeably absent. Instead, the nurses have been ordered back to work, with threats of legal action if they stay out’. [80]

Tokyo Sexwale, ANC premier of Gauteng province, claimed that the NP was behind the nurses’ and municipal workers’ strikes. He complained that the municipal workers’ tactic of littering the streets of Johannesburg – which helped win them wage increases ranging between 11 percent (for middle grades) and 20 percent for the low paid in October 1995 – gave white business a bad impression of black people. ‘Johannesburg is my city, the capital of Gauteng, and I won’t let people say: look what happens under a black government.’ Paul Mashatile, Gauteng ANC secretary, claimed that workers’ demands were ‘just a smokescreen’, and that the municipal strike ‘can only serve the interests of people who are bent on undermining the ANC government’. [81]

Interestingly the SACP distanced itself from these attacks, calling them ‘deeply insulting to nurses and municipal workers’, and acknowledging that the strikes ‘brought real energies out onto the streets...The great majority of municipal workers and nurses marched with ANC posters and portraits of President Mandela.’ But the party also warned against ‘a working class romanticism. Not all workers strikes are necessarily justified or even progressive,’ it argued, citing the irrelevant example of racist strikes by white workers, while ‘some tactics (like trashing a city centre) are ill advised’. [82]

In fact, the strikes reflected above all the economic pressures on workers, especially in the public sector. To concern about the cost of living and impatience over the slow pace of change was added also anger at the fact that the bosses weren’t exactly following Mandela’s call for tighter belts. Thus a Weekly Mail survey of 26 of the top 150 companies revealed in August 1995 that, for example, directors of Rainbow had awarded themselves a 40.7 percent pay increase, those of Tongaat Hullett 40 percent, and those of South African Breweries 24 percent; these handouts to rich executives reflected higher profits – in the case of these three companies respectively over 100 percent, 55.4 percent, and 30 percent. [83] ‘Keep the last carriage on the gravy train for us’, said a poster during the Gauteng nurses’ strike.

The strikes inevitably put some strain on the relationship between the ANC and COSATU, partners though they were in the Revolutionary Alliance. In fact, Fowlis argues that ‘the ANC and trade unions [had] to some extent drifted apart’ even before the GNU took office in May 1994. He identifies three factors as responsible. In the first place, ‘a degree of disillusionment with the ANC’ gradually set in after February 1990, in particular because of their concessions to the NP and big business over economic policy. Secondly, there was a ‘growing clamour [in the unions] for greater independence within the alliance’. Indeed, in 1993-1994, in the immediate run up to the elections, two major unions, the metal workers (NUMSA) and the clothing and textile workers (SACTWU), both strongly workerist in the 1980s, passed resolutions highly critical of what the latter called ‘alliance politics’; there was even (though Fowlis does not mention this) a revival of the old idea of a union based workers’ party separate from the ANC. Thirdly, the influx of ex-union officials into government and parliament was likely to weaken both COSATU by depriving it of ‘many of their best intellectual[s] and most effective leaders’ and its alliance with the ANC, since the elections had severed the ‘visible link’ of union officials holding ANC (and often also SACP) positions and ‘left today’s union leaders with more freedom to concentrate on the concerns with [sic] their members, even if those concerns mean taking action which might embarrass the government’. [84]

Fowlis somewhat overstates the degree of alienation between the ANC and COSATU. The pre-election talk of launching a new workers’ party soon blew itself out. Two prominent workerists of the 1980s, and former general secretaries of the unions most critical of the ANC, NUMSA and SACTWU, respectively Moses Mayekiso and Johnny Copelyn, were soon sitting on the government benches in the National Assembly. (There Copelyn hardly did much credit to the cause of independent unionism when it emerged that he had been paid a sum estimated at R1 million as a result of business deals he had made while managing SACTWU’s investments. [85])

The new generation of union officials loyally defended the Revolutionary Alliance and sought to restrain their members from going on strike. For example, in the case of the Gauteng nurses’ strike, the Socialist Workers Organisation pointed out: ‘Every union, including SANA [the conservative South African Nurses Association], the right wing HOSPERSA and the left wing NEHAWU, accepted the argument that nurses should, as the SACP acknowledged, not strike, whatever their grievances’. [86] It is, moreover, certain that the overwhelming majority of those involved in the strikes were loyal supporters of the ANC and President Mandela.

What may be true, however, is that the new officials, lacking the authority that came from leading struggles against the bosses and the state in the 1970s and 1980s, were less effective in restraining their members than their predecessors would have been. The Financial Times went so far as to talk of ‘a crisis of leadership’ caused by the departure of 100 COSATU officials, ‘not only to high offices of state, but to the private sector and academia’. It predicted that ‘the unions’ clout within … corporatist structures will inevitably diminish – at least until a new crop of articulate and forceful unionists can emerge to take the place of those lost. And perhaps more importantly, the leaders’ ability to deliver the co-operation of the union rank and file may also be jeopardised.’ [87]

Old or new, the union leaders had in any case to balance between two sources of pressure – one from the government and big business to preserve industrial stability, the other from their members to fight for pay increases and for social reforms. Both to demonstrate to the ANC and the bosses that they were too powerful to be ignored as a social partner, and to retain the loyalty of their rank and file, the COSATU leadership were compelled themselves to initiate strike action.

Thus, impatient at the employers’ obstructionism during the negotiations in NEDLAC over the new Labour Relations Bill, COSATU called two weeks of protests culminating in a stayaway on 19 June 1995. A million workers came out in support of the federation’s demands, which included centralised wage bargaining, the right to strike without dismissal, a ban on lockouts and scab labour, and the legalisation of union shops. [88] A compromise falling well short of COSATU’s demands was eventually reached after the employers had threatened to sit out a six month strike rather than accept the imposition of centralised bargaining. The labour consultant Frans Rautenberg told the Weekly Mail that:

‘the conflict is a sign of a profound and basic disagreement between labour and business, and the beginning of a crack in the alliance between the ANC [sic: COSATU?] and the government.’

He sees the clash, which ultimately the government will be faced with handling, as part of a worldwide trend as economic pressures force governments to seek labour market flexibility. [89]

Rautenburg’s words proved to be prophetic. In December 1995 the GNU capitulated to the ‘worldwide trend’ towards, not merely ‘flexibility’, but also privatisation, and decided to sell off minority shareholdings in some parastatals. COSATU reacted with fury, accusing the government of breaching an agreement made only a week earlier that no changes in the state sector would be made without full consultation and until an overall policy on ‘restructuring’ had been agreed. Instead, COSATU was being asked ‘to rubber stamp someone else’s agenda’. [90] Significantly it was the South African Railways and Harbour Workers Union (SARHWU), traditionally one of the COSATU affiliates most loyal to the ANC, that called protest strikes on 13 December.

At a rally that day SARHWU president Nelson Ndisina accused the GNU of behaving like ‘the previous National Party governments which took decisions on our behalf’. And he declared, ‘As workers of South Africa, we will not allow anybody, I repeat anybody, to privatise.’ The speech by Sam Shilowa, general secretary of COSATU, at the same rally dramatised the balancing act in which the union leaders found themselves engaging. On the one hand, he declared, ‘There is no debate on whether COSATU supports transformation, reorganisation and restructuring, because we want an efficient system and to root out corruption.’ On the other hand, he used much more militant rhetoric: ‘As workers your rights are sacrificed on the altar of profits... You must remain in a state of readiness, so that when we say Kubo! Ningene kubo – Hit them! You must hit them’. [91]

By the time of the strikes an agreement had been cobbled up to smooth COSATU’s ruffled feathers – a joint committee was established to review the future of the state sector, and a moratorium placed on future government statements on the issue. [92] It was a sign of the pressures from below on COSATU leaders, and of their own anger, that they nevertheless organised further protests and called a one day general strike on 16 January. This strike was then called off at the last moment, after yet more government promises and rumours that the powerful National Union of Mineworkers was opposed to the action. The affair illustrated the contradictory position in which the union leaders were placed. Like trade union bureaucrats everywhere they were seeking to reconcile the inherently antagonistic interests of capital and labour – but in a society with appalling levels of mass poverty and powerful traditions of working class militancy. They – and South Africa itself – were likely to have a rough ride. [93]

Future prospects

There were indeed formidable problems confronting the ANC led Government of National Unity. Some reflected the political inheritance of apartheid. Of these the most serious was Inkatha. The IFP entered the New South Africa controlling KwaZulu/Natal, the second most important province, and with substantial parliamentary and ministerial representation at the centre. Despite the ANC’s successful courting of the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini, Buthelezi was able, thanks to his long established control of the sources of both patronage and repression in KwaZulu, to retain the loyalty of most chiefs. In the GNU he behaved like a semi-detached cabinet minister, often distancing himself from government decisions.

More dangerously, the IFP pressed for a constitutional status for KwaZulu/Natal that would make it effectively autonomous. The Inkatha dominated provincial government threatened unilaterally to implement a constitution to this effect, defying the popularly elected National Assembly’s right to settle the political future of South Africa as a whole. In fact, however, the IFP was seriously divided, with KwaZulu/Natal premier Frank Mdlalose and other members of the provincial leadership in favour of more cautious policies than Buthelezi and his personal advisers, predominantly white right wingers. This helped create a condition of political paralysis in the province. Mandela responded to the IFP’s secessionist threats with tough talk, but held back from any decisive action. The ANC’s leadership in KwaZulu/Natal, which had failed to mobilise effectively for the April 1994 elections, was weak and divided. The IFP was able to force a delay in local government elections in the province, held in the rest of the country in November 1995, until the following March.

Against this background, the dreadful war between the ‘spoos’ and ‘sdus’, respectively armed supporters of the IFP and the ANC, continued in the townships, squatter camps, and villages of KwaZulu/Natal. In the first ten months of 1995 over 2,000 people died in political violence in the province, which the Human Rights Commission described as being in ‘a situation of near anarchy’. [94] Half a million refugees fled from their homes to escape the killing. The worst bloodshed seemed to be concentrated in the Port Shepstone area, on Natal’s south coast. Kipha Nyawosa, ANC chairman in the village of Shobashobane, which he described as ‘an island of ANC surrounded by a sea of IFP areas’, lost 14 members of his family between October 1994 and June 1995. ‘Before the elections, my family was alive. Now they are dead’, he told the Weekly Mail in September 1995. ‘I don’t feel this new South Africa we got last April’. [95]

On Christmas Day 1995 some 600 well armed IFP supporters attacked Shobashobane. They disembowelled Nyawosa, cut out his heart and mutilated his genitals, and butchered 18 other people. Before the raid independent monitors and ANC officials had begged the local police commander for help. According to the Independent on Sunday, ‘[t]he police response was to raid ANC houses and confiscate weapons, a move which left Shobashobane defenceless.’ Political violence in KwaZulu/Natal over Christmas left a total of 189 people dead over seven days. Violence monitor Mary Haas claimed that responsibility lay with ‘an old boy network still involved in destabilisation’, embracing white right wingers and elements in the police. ‘It is driven by a right-wing ideology that likes Buthelezi because it sees him as its creation. It believes that if you control KwaZulu/Natal, with its ports and harbours, then you control South Africa’. [96] In what the Weekly Mail called ‘a political defeat for the African National Congress’, the IFP was able to prevent a central government police team from investigating the Shobashobane massacre and others like it. [97]

The carnage in KwaZulu/Natal raised the more general question of the extent to which the ANC could rely on the loyalty of the security forces it had inherited from the old NP regime. The reality of the third force behind the escalating violence of the 1990s was made clear when in October 1995 the former Minister of Defence, General Magnus Malan, and several senior military officers were charged with the massacre of 13 people in 1987. This was one of the many atrocities committed by a group known as the ‘Caprivi 200’, IFP supporters trained by the SADF in the Caprivi strip. The aim behind this operation, according to a secret Military Intelligence document attached to the indictment, was ‘to set up a group of well-trained troops that can be used offensively against the ANC, UDF [United Democratic Front] and related organisations’. Buthelezi, the home affairs minister, was nearly arrested along with Malan and his generals. [98]

But, though the most senior personnel associated with the apartheid terror had been removed, and some were even being called to account, the repressive apparatuses of the South African state remained largely unchanged. They represented a formidable threat to any elected government that sought seriously to change society.

The basic problem facing South Africa, however, was that, as we have seen, the ANC led government was not seeking seriously to change society. Unless, through some miracle, free market economics produced a real trickle down effect, the prospect was one of growing mass impoverishment and, in all likelihood, political disillusionment. What would these produce?

Developments in neighbouring Zimbabwe help to define one possible scenario. There too the final attainment of national liberation in 1980 led to the transfer of political power to the black majority, but left economic power in the hands of white settler and foreign capital. [99] At the end of the 1980s popular discontent found a focus in a huge scandal (‘Willowgate’) which engulfed the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). An alliance of students and trade unionists was able to scupper President Robert Mugabe’s plans to set up a one party state, but, thanks to the weakness of the political opposition, he hung onto power.

By the early 1990s ZANU-PF had abandoned its earlier economic nationalism, and was pursuing an Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) of free market policies demanded by the World Bank. ESAP had a predictably devastating effect on jobs and living standards. Yet Mugabe found a way of deflecting the mass hunger for change – black empowerment. This slogan was initially raised by a black middle class lobby called the Affirmative Action Group. It argued that the source of Zimbabwe’s problems lay in the continued economic domination of whites; the solution lay in systematic state promotion of the interests of black capitalists. This analysis found a resonance among black bosses who, in the main owning small businesses, were harder hit by ESAP than the bigger firms, which were controlled by local whites or foreign multinationals. The government itself took up the slogan (and even used it to justify its 1994 attempt to hand over farms expropriated from whites to individual black ‘entrepreneurs’, including various ministers and other state officials). ZANU-PF overwhelmingly won a general election in April 1995 amid massive popular apathy. [100]

’Black empowerment’ was already a buzzword in South Africa before the ANC came to office. Inasmuch as it concerned what Meshack Mabogoane describes as ‘the significant advancement of blacks in the corridors of corporate power’, it took two forms. One was the promotion of blacks to senior positions, including directorships, in established companies. Beginning in the early 1990s, this took off under the GNU, especially in the parastatals. The other was the establishment of powerful black controlled enterprises. Here probably the most important development was the emergence of New Africa Investments, which Mabogoane calls ‘a black economic empowerment flagship’, headed by Dr Nthato Motlana, a long standing ANC figure in Soweto. Motlana saw African capitalism growing as Afrikaner business had developed from the 1940s, through a pyramid of shareholdings giving control over a large number of companies. But, if we take the analogy seriously, the advancement of Afrikaner private enterprise was greatly aided by the established English speaking capitalists, above all the great Anglo-American Corporation, which saw it as a way of defusing pressures from the NP regime, and which still dominate the South African economy. Indeed, Mabogoane observes, black economic empowerment:

has been perceived as both co-option of a black elite and its enrichment with very little real control by the very same. Whenever a black economic empowerment venture is announced the black directors would either be non-executive or chairmen while the whites take on the top operational roles. This is construed as tokenism and window dressing, carried out by major companies in response to pressures from both government and organised black groups. It is seen as a subtle means of legitimising continued white control of corporations. [101]

Whether or not black empowerment represented any real change in the structure of South African society, it was increasingly taken up in ANC circles. Minister of Public Services and Administration Zola Skweyiya accepted the description of him as an ‘Africanist’, and said: ‘The ANC shouldn’t shy away from blacks becoming capitalists. The only question is – how do we achieve it?’ [102] Professor William Makgopa, headhunted by Wits University to serve as deputy vice-chancellor and symbol of black empowerment, horrified white academics with pronouncements like: ‘The primary principle of a South African university should be to capture and encapsulate the essence of Africa.’ [103] (A group of them, including the supposedly left wing historian Charles van Onselen, who had also been a bitter foe of student and worker protests at Wits, challenged his academic credentials, and forced his suspension.)

Despite the ANC’s traditions of non-racialism, and the important role played by whites and Indians in the liberation struggle, Africanist attitudes could be found near the very top of the government. Thus the Weekly Mail wrote of Deputy President Thabo Mbeki:

He is also prone to playing an Africanist ticket when it suits him. It is seldom public, but people around him have said that he knows exactly when and with whom he can successfully play on the sense of an African – rather than a black or a South African – identity. [104]

It is therefore easy to imagine the ANC in the future, faced with mass discontent because of the absence of real social and economic change, playing on the rhetoric of black empowerment, and presenting mass impoverishment as essentially a racial issue to which the solution would be the replacement of white by African capitalists. Should it not do so, then there are other political organisations rooted in the traditions of black exclusivism, above all the PAC, who would be quick to play this card.

Observers often argue that the pressures on the ANC will cause it to split at some stage. There are various versions of this prediction – for example, a breakaway by Winnie Mandela and the populists, or a decision by the SACP to operate as an independent organisation. Such scenarios need to be treated with some scepticism. ‘Never underestimate the ANC,’ is one of the great lessons of South African politics. It has survived terrible defeats, and seen off a succession of political challenges – from the PAC in the late 1950s and early 1960s, from Black Consciousness in the 1970s, from the workerists in the 1980s.

An essential ingredient in the ANC’s success has been its ability to contain often quite diverse tendencies within the same movement. This has allowed it to tack and turn as the political wind changes. This is likely to continue to be the case in office. Thus, despite the general moderation of the GNU’s economic policies, ANC general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa made a well publicised attack in July 1995 on ‘monopolies’ like Anglo-American, declaring, ‘The ANC is committed to breaking the stranglehold these companies have, and ultimately the government will have to act’. [105] Nelson Mandela actually took part in a COSATU march in Johannesburg during the federation’s campaign over the Labour Relations Bill the previous month. The government, moreover, did in effect respond to the Gauteng strikes by promising to find an extra R9 billion for public sector wages.

So far there has been no significant decline in the ANC’s popularity. It won two thirds of the popular vote in the November 1995 local government elections, and even made inroads among the NP’s Coloured supporters in the Western Cape (though Cape Town, along with KwaZulu/Natal, was excluded from the poll). Should, however, the ANC begin to lose support, some sort of at least apparent shift to the left – whether in the shape of a greater stress on black empowerment or in the pursuit of more substantial reforms than have yet appeared – cannot be ruled out, perhaps in the run up to the next elections, due in 1999. What is highly unlikely, however, is that any such turn would mark an abandonment by the ANC of its commitment to managing South African capitalism.


In 1985, long before he had (as the Financial Times put it) ‘made his peace with capitalism’, and become Deputy Minister of Finance in the GNU, Alec Erwin wrote a perceptive analysis of the limits of what he called the ‘liberation politics’ of the ANC and movements like it. This politics depended for success on mobilising a cross-class coalition against the regime. ‘To have raised different class interests during such a struggle would have been divisive and divisive forces take on some of the stigma attached to apartheid.’ The NP’s reform policies, however, created a situation where ‘liberation politics [is] no longer liberation politics but rather a process of negotiating’. At the same time the structural crisis of the South African economy put a fundamental social transformation onto the agenda. But ‘the nature of the unity forged in liberation politics … suppress[es] class interests and transformation. In the South African situation – and elsewhere – a change of regime in circumstances where transformation has not been addressed leaves intact the structure and interests that are so minimal to the mass of workers and rural population’. [106]

Such a change of regime indeed took place in South Africa in May 1994. And, as Erwin predicted, ‘the mass of workers and rural population’ have yet to see any significant change to their lives. It is important to understand that this failure is not a matter of personal betrayal or backsliding (though the abandonment by core elements of the South African left of any attempt to pursue a socialist alternative is indeed shameful). There can be few groups of individuals in the world with finer personal records of political courage and sacrifice than Mandela and his ANC ministers.

Rather, the failure of the ANC in office to pursue any real attempt to transform society is a consequence of the strategy it has pursued. Like reformists at other places and times, the Revolutionary Alliance has made its genuine desire to achieve the ‘social upliftment’ of the black majority conditional on the revival of the fortunes of capitalism in its country. But it has done so at a time when capitalism on a global scale is experiencing profound turbulence and instability. A consequence is to place immense competitive pressures on individual economies.

In this context, the plight of South African capitalism is particularly serious. The chronic low productivity of manufacturing industry that is part of the inheritance of apartheid does pose severe tests on South African firms’ ability to negotiate world markets. [107] A recent study of the South African car industry suggested that, though wages are low by international standards, low productivity eliminates much of the competitive advantage this might offer (see Table 2).

TABLE 2: Labour costs in vehicle assembly


Labour cost per

Labour hours per

Labour cost per

South Africa








United States




[Source: Survey on Investing in South Africa, Financial Times, 2 May 1995]

The difficulty is that addressing this crisis of competitiveness requires an assault on the improvements in wages and working conditions that black workers made in the 1980s thanks to the development of the independent unions. In other words, reviving South African capitalism depends on the ANC in government taking on the powerful workers’ movement that played a central role in its victory over apartheid. John Saul rightly celebrates ‘the vibrancy and radical push at the base of South African society’. [108] He does not see, however, that the pursuit of reform within a capitalist context will make the vitality of grassroots working class and community organisation increasingly an embarrassment to the Mandela government. The conflicts between the GNU and organised workers chronicled in this article are merely the opening skirmishes in a much larger struggle.

Moreover, the choice Saul presents between ‘structural reform’ and ‘barbarism’ does not counterpose genuine alternatives. The reformist strategy adopted by the Revolutionary Alliance in the early 1990s has so far produced no substantial socio-economic reforms. This is no paradox, but rather an instance of a familiar pattern. Again and again, social democratic governments in the developed capitalist countries that set out to reform capitalism have ended up as its managers, and consequently have found themselves attacking their own working class supporters.

It is precisely the absence of reform, and the resulting misery and disillusionment that this is likely to create in the black masses, that will feed the forces of barbarism in South African society. The slaughter in KwaZulu/Natal is not merely a hangover from the apartheid past, or a symptom of the persisting alliance between the IFP and forces in the state apparatus. The less the movement assembled around the ANC is able to offer a convincing and effective strategy for improving the material situation of the black masses, the more many of the most wretched and impoverished members of the population are likely to look to alternative ethnic solutions, which, however retrograde, offer both psychological comforts, and, often, immediate economic benefits. [109] The ANC’s failure substantially to change South African society is likely to strengthen Inkatha. The choice is thus, not between barbarism and reform, but between socialism and barbarism.

It follows that, while it proved possible in the end to remove the political institutions of apartheid within a capitalist framework, the social and economic inheritance of the malign South African partnership between capitalism and racial domination cannot be removed without a socialist revolution. It is plain that the main organisation of the South African left, the Communist Party, is politically incapable of assuming such a task. The workers’ movement in South Africa therefore needs a new socialist party – though undoubtedly the most important recruits to its ranks will come from the militant workers and youth who today still look towards the SACP and the ANC (one of the chief disabilities of the bulk of the Trotskyist left in South Africa has been its sectarian hostility towards these organisations). Building such a party will, no doubt, be a difficult and arduous task. It is no less urgent, however, if the great hopes raised by the final defeat of apartheid are not to be followed by a terrible reckoning.


I am grateful to Paul Allen, Tony Cliff, Charlie Kimber, John Rees and Julie Waterson for their help in writing this article.

1. Weekly Mail, 15 May 1992.

2. Weekly Mail and Guardian (hereinafter WMG), 11 March 1994.

3. Ibid., 17 March 1995.

4. Socialist Worker (Johannesburg), 11 October 1995. In November 1995 £1 = R5.669, $1 = R3.635. Under the apartheid system the population of South Africa – estimated in 1995 at 41.24 million – was divided into four main racial groups: Africans (71.5 percent of the population), Coloureds (9 percent), Indians (2.9 percent) and whites (16.6 percent). The first three groups, disenfranchised and discriminated against under apartheid, are all referred to in this article as ‘black’, though sometimes this term is restricted solely to Africans.

5. For further information about, and analysis of, the process sketched out in the following paragraphs, see A. Callinicos, South Africa between Reform and Revolution (London,1988), Can South Africa be Reformed?, International Socialism (1990), and Introduction to Callinicos (ed.), Between Apartheid and Capitalism (London 1992). M. Murray, The Revolution Deferred (London 1994), paints a powerful portrait of South African society on the eve of majority rule. It is particularly good at bringing out what Murray calls ‘the inner connection between the rise of post-apartheid parliamentary democracy and the “dead weight” of embedded structural continuities left over from the past’ (p. iii). Unfortunately, apparently under the influence of the great French historian Fernand Braudel, he tends so strongly to stress the ‘structural underpinnings’, and to treat political events as mere ‘surface appearances’ (p. x), that he often fails to grasp the dynamics of the struggles that unfolded during South Africa’s democratic transition.

6. Interview in Death of Apartheid (BBC-TV 1995), Part 1. This series, presented by the veteran South African journalist Allister Sparks, is an invaluable source of information on the transition to democracy. See also Mandela’s own account in his memoirs, Long Walk to Freedom (London 1994), pp. 624–627.

7. Accounts of the negotiating process can be found in A. Sparks, Tomorrow is Another Country (London 1995), in S. Friedman (ed.), The Long Journey (Johannesburg 1993), and The Small Miracle (Johannesburg 1995), and in A. Callinicos, The End of Apartheid and After, Economic and Political Weekly, 3 September 1994.

8. Interview, Death of Apartheid, op. cit., Part 2.

9. For a contemporary discussion (highly critical of the ‘Leipzig Option’) of the strategic options facing the Revolutionary Alliance, see J. Cronin, The Boat, the Tap and the Leipzig Way, African Communist, 3rd Quarter, 1992.

10. Interview, Death of Apartheid, op. cit., Part 2

11. J. Slovo, Negotiations: What Room for Compromise?, African Communist, 3rd Quarter, 1992.

12. Financial Times (hereinafter FT), 4 December 1993.

13. WMG, 25 February 1994.

14. This process could, however, easily have gone awry. Mac Maharaj, the ANC leader sent as part of a team representing the Transitional Executive Council to Bophuthatswana, has described how he had personally to intervene to block efforts by General Georg Meiring, chief of the SADF, in collaboration with Viljoen and de Klerk, to keep Mangope in office: see A. Sparks, Tomorrow, op. cit., pp. 214–219.

15. The classic statement of the two stage strategy is the SACP’s 1962 programme, The Road to South African Freedom, in South African Communists Speak (London 1981). It was reaffirmed in the party’s 1989 programme, The Path to Power, published in African Communist, 3rd Quarter, 1989. For a critique, see A. Callinicos, South Africa, op. cit., pp. 65–72.

16. See the discussion of this shift in my interview with the SACP leader Jeremy Cronin, The Communist Party and the Left, in Callinicos (ed.), Between Apartheid and Capitalism, op. cit., pp. 83–6.

17. This was true, not only of the SACP, but of the bulk of the orthodox Trotskyist tendencies. The Unity Movement, historically the most important influence on the South African far left, had long taken up an extremely uncritical attitude towards the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR, for example, defending its suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956: see B. Hirson, Revolutions in My Life (Johannesburg 1995), pp. 256–64. This attitude tended to influence even those who had broken with the Unity Movement. I vividly remember visiting South Africa shortly after the defeat of the August 1991 conservative coup in Moscow to discover that most of those calling themselves Trotskyists regarded this as a defeat for the left as well.

18. J. Slovo, Has Socialism Failed? (London 1990). Slovo discusses the SACP’s Stalinist past in his posthumously published autobiography: for a relevant extract, see Restoring Socialist Morality after Stalin, WMG, 1 December 1995.

19. Business Day, 12 December 1990. See also J. Slovo, Nudging the Balance from “Free” to “Plan”, Weekly Mail, 30 March 1990.

20. A. Erwin, Capital Need Not Bridle at the Label “Socialist”, Weekly Mail, 30 March 1990. The workerists were a group initially of mainly white socialist intellectuals who played a key role in building the independent unions in the 1970s and 1980s. Critical of the ANC-SACP stages strategy and of the subordination of the workers’ movement to the broader anti-apartheid alliance that it implied, they sought to defend the autonomy of the unions. Beyond some vague speculations about the possibility of building a Brazilian style ‘workers’ party’, they failed, however, to address the question of socialist political organisation. As ‘populists’ supporting the ANC and SACP became increasingly dominant inside COSATU in the late 1980s, the workerists increasingly abandoned their distinctive stance. Many, including Erwin, joined the SACP when it was publicly relaunched after February 1990. See A. Callinicos, South Africa, op. cit., chps 4 and 5, and, for a view more sympathetic towards the eventual merger of workerists and populists, J. Baskin, Striking Back (Johannesburg 1991).

21. Weekly Mail, 12 July 1991.

22. The difficulties facing the European model of ‘Rhenish capitalism’ are analysed in A. Callinicos, Crisis and Class Struggle in Europe Today, International Socialism 64 (1994).

23. For a critique of the shift towards social democracy, see A. Callinicos, Social Contract or Socialism?, in Callinicos (ed.), op. cit., Between Apartheid and Capitalism.

24. S. Gelb, Democratising Economic Growth, Transformation 12 (1990), pp. 35–36. This entire issue of Transformation is devoted to the Recommendations on Post-Apartheid Economic Policy embodying the Growth through Redistribution strategy drawn up at a workshop in Harare. The analysis underlying this approach is developed much further in S. Gelb (ed.), South Africa’s Economic Crisis (Cape Town 1991).

25. The pursuit of a more ‘progressive’ version of capitalism has also become a major preoccupation of the west European left. Will Hutton’s The State We’re In (London 1995) is a forceful argument for what has come to be known as ‘stakeholder capitalism’. Two critiques of this intellectual shift are A. Callinicos, Backward to Liberalism, International Socialism 66 (1995), and C. Harman, From Bernstein to Blair, International Socialism 67 (1995).

26. J. Saul, South Africa: Between “Barbarism” and Structural Reform, New Left Review 188 (1991), pp. 5–6. See, for a critique, A. Callinicos, Reform and Revolution in South Africa, New Left Review 195 (1992), and Saul’s reply, in the same issue.

27. J. Saul, Structural Reform: A Model for the Revolutionary Transformation of South Africa?, Transformation 20 (1992). Kagarlitsky develops the idea of ‘revolutionary reformism’ in The Dialectic of Change (London 1990); see my review, A Third Road?, Socialist Worker Review, February 1990.

28. WMG, 3 December 1993.

29. FT, 7 May 1994.

30. Survey on South Africa, FT, 18 July 1994.

31. WMG, 17 March 1995.

32. Ibid., 17 March 1995.

33. R. Kasrils and Khuzwayo, Mass Struggle is the Key, Work in Progress 72, January/February 1991. Kasrils’ autobiography, Armed and Dangerous (London 1993), gives a rather Boys Own account of his exploits in MK.

34. WMG, 7 April 1995.

35. Ibid., 15 March 1995.

36. Survey on South Africa, FT, 18 July 1994.

37. WMG, 10 June 1994.

38. Ibid., 21 October 1994.

39. Ibid., 13 January 1995.

40. Ibid., 31 March 1995.

41. Survey on South Africa, FT, 21 November 1995.

42. N. Nattrass, The Two Faces of the RDP, WMG, 15 September 1995.

43. Ibid., 21 April 1995.

44. Ibid., 17 November 1995.

45. R.W. Johnson, Enrichissez-Vous!, London Review of Books, 20 October 1994, p. 17.

46. Ibid.

47. WMG, 28 April 1995.

48. Ibid., 21 April 1995.

49. Ibid., 17 November 1995.

50. See Where is the Real Corruption?, Socialist Worker (Johannesburg), 22 February 1995.

51. E. Webster, Speak Out, Social Democrats!, WMG, 18 August 1995.

52. FT, 21 March 1995.

53. Ibid., 8 December 1995.

54. Ibid., 9 December 1995.

55. Ibid., 7 December 1995.

56. Survey on Investing in South Africa, FT, 2 May 1995.

57. WMG, 22 December 1995.

58. For a well informed and relatively mild example of this literature, see S. Ellis and T. Sechaba, Comrades against Apartheid (London 1992).

59. WMG, 11 November 1994.

60. Two discussion documents presented to the conference, Challenging the Neo-Liberal Agenda in South Africa, and The Present Situation and the Challenges to the South African Left, were published in South Asia Bulletin, XVI (1995). Allison Drew’s editorial introduction to this special issue on South Africa, Building Democracy in Post-Apartheid South Africa, contains a brief account of the conference along with some more general reflections.

61. FT, 7 January 1995.

62. In the future it may well be necessary for revolutionary socialists to present an alternative to the ANC electorally, as well as on other more important terrains. To attempt to do so in the circumstances of April 1994 with the forces then available was, however, a serious error.

63. WMG, 3 March 1995.

64. Ibid., 28 April 1995.

65. Ibid., 3 March 1995.

66. The interdependence of apartheid and capitalism and, consequently, the political centrality of the black working class, were demonstrated by the work of the so called ‘Revisionist’ school of Marxist historians in the 1970s, but the basic idea had been anticipated by critics of the Communist Party’s stages strategy in the early Trotskyist groups from the mid-1930s onwards. See, for example, the documents edited by Baruch Hirson in Revolutionary History 4:4 (1993). W. Beinart and S. Dubow (eds.), Segregation and Apartheid in Twentieth-Century South Africa (London 1995) is a useful selection of historical essays more or less influenced by ‘Revisionism’.

67. WMG, 13 May 1994.

68. Survey on South Africa, FT, 18 July 1994.

69. Webster, Speak Out, Social Democrats!, WMG, 18 August 1995.

70. Critiques of the Labour Relations Bill include Defend the Right to Strike for All!, Socialist Worker (Johannesburg), 8 February 1995, and D. Bosch and D. du Toit, Size Does Count, WMG, 24 February 1995.

71. Survey on South Africa, FT, 18 July 1994.

72. FT, 21 March 1995.

73. B. Fowlis, The Post Election Strikewave in South Africa, Leicester University Discussion Papers in Politics, P95/1 (1995), pp. 1, 9. See also Z. Mtshelwane, “Struggle as Usual” in the New South Africa?, South African Labour Bulletin 18:3, July 1994.

74. FT, 21 March 1995.

75. M. Mabogoane, Wages Whip Workers into Strike Action, WMG, 6 October 1995.

76. Quoted in J. Saul, “Barbarism”, op. cit., p. 6.

77. Socialist Worker (Johannesburg), 25 April 1995.

78. WMG, 10 February 1995.

79. P. Dexter, Nurses’ Conduct is Unacceptable, WMG, 15 September 1995.

80. WMG, 8 September 1995.

81. Socialist Worker (Johannesburg), 11 October 1995.

82. The RDP Needs Class Struggle, African Communist, 3rd Quarter,1995, p. 1.

83. WMG, 25 August. 1995.

84. Fowlis, Post Election Strikewave, op. cit., pp. 9–17.

85. WMG, 13 and 28 April 1995.

86. Socialist Worker (Johannesburg), 20 September 1995.

87. Survey on South Africa, FT, 18 July 1994.

88. Socialist Worker (London), 24 June 1995.

89. WMG, 23 June 1995.

90. FT, 9 December 1995.

91. WMG, 15 December 1995.

92. FT, 15 December 1995.

93. For a brief summary of the Marxist theory of the trade union bureaucracy, see A. Callinicos, Socialists in the Trade Unions (London 1995), ch. 2.

94. Survey on South Africa, FT, 21 November 1995.

95. WMG, 22 September 1995.

96. Independent on Sunday, 31 December 1995.

97. WMG, 5 January 1996.

98. WMG, 8 December 1995.

99. For a contemporary account, see A. Callinicos, Southern Africa after Zimbabwe (London 1981). A useful, and more recent, survey is C. Stoneman and L. Cliffe, Zimbabwe (London 1989) – though it appeared, absurdly, in a series called Marxist Regimes.

100. There is a helpful discussion of black empowerment in B.L. Zano, Racism in Zimbabwe, Socialist Worker (Harare), May/June 1995.

101. M. Mabogoane, The Genesis of Black Empowerment, WMG, 15 December 1995. The astonishing story of Anglo-American is told in D. Innes, Anglo-American and the Rise of Modern South Africa (London 1984).

102. WMG, 15 December 1995.

103. Ibid., 7 July 1995.

104. Ibid., 28 April 1995.

105. FT, 28 July 1995.

106. A. Erwin, The Question of Unity in the Struggle, South African Labour Bulletin, 11:1, September 1985, pp. 60–1, 70.

107. See, for example, D. Kaplan, The South African Capital Goods Sector and the Economic Crisis, in Gelb (ed.), Economic Crisis, op. cit.

108. J. Saul, “Barbarism”, op. cit., p. 7.

109. C. Charney, Vigilantes, Clientelism and the South African State, Transformation 16 (1991), stresses the role of patronage in creating and sustaining movements like Inkatha.

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