- Before and after: reflections on regime change and its aftermath
The quality and depth of resistance organisation, it turns out, is less important for formal regime change than might have been imagined. But this not to say that it is unimportant – on the contrary, it turns out also to be crucial for the nature and shape of the society which emerges after the government changes. This must be placed in context. The article on which I have been asked to look back was written in 1987 (Transformation 3) when, of course, the method by which apartheid might be defeated was hotly debated.1 And it was, although it never says this explicitly, an attempt to intervene in the ‘workerist-populist’ debate of that period and to transport it from the workplace to the township. This debate had originally centred on the appropriate role for the union movement – ‘workerists’ wanted to shield the labour movement from the nationalism of the ANC and its United Democratic Front ally while ‘populists’ saw an alliance with the nationalist movement as essential to the defeat of apartheid (Plaut 1992). ‘Workerists’ held this position either because nationalism was seen as a threat to socialism or because it seemed likely to compromise union organisation by imposing on it priorities which were not in its strategic interests, or both. But ‘workerists’ (like this one) were also likely to see the clash as one between two styles of collective action, one relying on mobilisation, the other on organisation. And so this article, as a re-reading shows, seeks to make a case for patient, strategic, organisation as a more viable method of defeating apartheid than popular mobilisation. More than two decades on, some revisions to this thesis are obviously required. [End Page 4]
Regime change, organisation and mobilisation
In one rather indirect sense this argument could be said to have been vindicated by later events. Central to the organisation strategy was the notion that negotiation was not a surrender but an advance. As the article pointed out, mobilisation strategies seemed to assume that, the less the apartheid state seemed willing to concede, the better for the fight against it because this would ensure more popular anger and more mobilisation. Organisation strategies, by contrast, insisted that negotiation was a source of power for the powerless because it imparted a sense of efficacy on which further action could be built – and also because a compromise between the dominator and the dominated empowered the latter at the expense of the former (Friedman 1985 and 1986). In two ways, this argument was vindicated by the manner of apartheid’s defeat.
Most obviously, of course, the system was defeated by a negotiated settlement. This possibility was hardly self-evident in 1987 – among intellectuals as well as activists. It was, for example, in that year that the activist and scholar Harold Wolpe published a book arguing that there was no prospect of a negotiated settlement between the ANC and its allies on the one hand, the apartheid state on the other (Wolpe 1987). More generally, activist rhetoric and strategy tended to assume that apartheid would be defeated by an apocalyptic seizure of state power, a moment when the people or their leaders would smash the apartheid state and assume the reins of power. In the event, of course, the regime died in a three year series of negotiations which ended not in the defeat of the apartheid state but in an agreement which was greeted by an all-night party attended by representatives of the defeated apartheid state and record highs on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (Atkinson 1994:34). The state was not smashed – it was gradually taken over by new managers.
The fact that change was negotiated was, however, perhaps not as important as the reality that the transition from apartheid to formal democracy was not the result of an apocalyptic rupture but of an incremental process of change which had, in reality, begun in at least 1973 with the Durban strikes and perhaps before then with the initial failure of the apartheid state to meet all its skilled labour needs through racial preference (Friedman 1986). Change was turbulent, often violent...