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  • The RDP, GEAR and all that:reflections ten years later1
  • Stephen Gelb (bio)

Let me begin by congratulating the editorial board of Transformation on their remarkable achievement in bringing out the 60th issue of the journal. Over the past 20 years, the journal has made a vital contribution to left and progressive thought in South Africa, and it is one of only three I can think of which survived the funding and personnel crises of the mid-90s (the other two being Agenda and the SA Labour Bulletin). What is perhaps distinctive about Transformation is its reliance on unpaid labour! I particularly want to mention Bill Freund and Gerry Maré, the two surviving founding editors who have been part of the enterprise for more than 20 years, and who must have each invested in the journal millions of rands worth of sweat equity. I know from my own personal observation that from the late-80s to the mid-90s the two of them did the bulk of the slog-work needed to get the issues out: I salute them for sticking with it and, I'm sure, still contributing as much as ever.

One of Transformation's important contributions over the years has been as a major arena for economic policy debate. In the early 1990s, it was crucial in making accessible the debate within the democratic movement about development and growth strategies for the post-apartheid economy. And in the mid- to late-90s, Transformation published several articles which provided an intellectual basis for what became the conventional 'left' critique of the GEAR policy, and particularly the view of GEAR as a 'neo-liberal' framework which reflected a sharp break with the then-existing policy that embodied the progressive principles and strategies of the RDP. Of course, overshadowing the arguments about substantive differences between the RDP and GEAR was the anger felt by progressives in the ANC alliance about their marginalisation from the [End Page 1] process through which the GEAR policy was formulated. This anger fuelled the intense and vitriolic debate about GEAR which continued for several years and resulted in deep, apparently permanent, divisions within the progressive democratic movement. The legacy of the abrupt and unilateral loss of progressives' 'voice' in formal policy processes remains at the centre of alliance politics today. As I understand it, a major reason for the support offered by the left within the ANC alliance for Jacob Zuma's presidential aspirations, at least up until his rape charge, was the belief —perhaps hope —that a Zuma-led government would offer more space in policy discussion to left and progressive voices than has been possible under Thabo Mbeki.

Since it is just a few weeks short of ten years since the GEAR policy was published, it made sense to me to return this evening to 'the RDP, GEAR and all that' and reflect on the lessons that emerge, with the perspective of the passage of time, from that episode. I should mention of course —though most people here will know —that I was one of the 'technical team' that drafted the GEAR document for government, though rather than the 'architect' of GEAR that I've sometimes been labelled, I was in reality more of a 'bricklayer' or 'general labourer'.

To begin with, I want to make three critical points about the conventional left view of GEAR, ie that it represented a sharp break from RDP policies. The standard response to this position from GEAR advocates within the alliance is that all the positions advanced in GEAR are to be found in the RDP. This is correct as far as it goes, since the RDP's macroeconomic policy section certainly takes a clear stand against macroeconomic profligacy, as was characteristic of all ANC policy statements from 1990. But of course GEAR places the macroeconomic dimension at the centre of policy, as distinct from its position in the RDP, where it was almost an afterthought. But more important than the RDP's formal position on this is, in my view, the fact that the key macroeconomic policies put in place during the RDP's period of supposed dominance represented positions more commonly associated...


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