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  • Editorial:Transformation turns fifty

Transformation was born in 1986 at the height of the popular anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Its earliest days coincided with scenes of riot, violence and repression on an unprecedented scale. Depressing and overwhelming as was this backdrop much of the time, it was equally one of mass meetings, strikes, spontaneous organisation and feverish political activity. It was a period not merely of optimism amongst a people given to hope, but even of bouts of euphoria. The old regime clearly was dying and it was uncertain what would succeed it; the possibilities seemed infinite and infinitely liberating at times. But this was kept in check by the harsh reality of systematic repression - the regime was fighting back in the name of reform. Repression, by contrast with the Ice Age of the 1960s, could not succeed even in the short term without further institutional change and experimentation that left holes open for change and for new forms of resistance. The old regime was dying, but it was not dead yet by a long way and the impact of its final breath would be felt for some time; the popular movement was giving birth to a new society but it was not going to be born according to the beat of its own clarion call.

In some ways, this period of balance between repression and popular resistance suited the rise of Transformation. Its founders felt the need to provide a forum for analysis amidst the euphoria of idealistic spontaneity, reflection amidst the frenzy of popular action, independence amidst the compelling pressure to bow to the discipline of various political factions. The new journal was never euphoric or partisan. In mood, it always suggested the need to look about for complexities, for contradictions, for the possibilities of setback. Its roots lay in a clearly perceived need for an analytic forum and political voice that would marry the European academic traditions of left theoretical analysis with the organised and spontaneous mass movements operating on the ground. The very choice of name reflected the need critically to engage with transforming South African society as well as the political modalities of how this was to be brought about. The name embodied a space to reflect on both issues of structure and agency. So, for example, a dominant political theme in the early years was [End Page i] an emphasis on engagement and involvement as opposed to outright boycott and irrevocable hostility to the surrounding realities. This could be understood in a reformist vein of course but it was largely couched in the language of structural change, of winning the battle for organisational hegemony with revolutionary intentions.

Transformation was a journal of the independent Left meant to take in the political economy and organisational life of a changing South Africa. It was not hostile to the resurgent African National Congress/South African Communist Party movement but it was also clearly not its political vehicle either. Fiercely independent, it provided a forum for views that were critical of strategies and tactics that might undermine a transition, perhaps a very gradual transition, to a socialist and non-racial settlement. Alongside the emphasis on institutional and economic issues lay, from the beginning, an insistence on the salience of class issues. Suspicion about the hijacking of liberation politics by a new ethnic or racial bourgeoisie lay behind this salience and united most early contributors. Yet the tone was not one of cynicism but of critical engagement and of optimism about the potential for structural change that would minimise the role of such a bourgeoisie.

The birth of Transformation was also a time of rapid growth in the alternative media, as has been documented and intelligently discussed in Nicholas Evans and Monica Seeber's recent book, The Politics of Publishing in South Africa. While journals aimed at a wider public such as Work in Progress (WIP) and the South African Labour Bulletin struggled to grasp historical and theoretical analyses, small academic journals such as Cape Town's Social Dynamics seemed to thrive on a diet of politicisation. Transformation had a particular political outlook, but its non-partisan approach allowed it to be respected and receive contributions both...


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