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  • We now know: reform, revolution and race in post-apartheid South Africa
  • Jacob Dlamini (bio)

In 1997, an eminent American historian of the Cold War named John Lewis Gaddis wrote a book titled We Now Know: rethinking Cold War history.1 The historian’s premise was simple: the collapse of the Soviet Union had allowed historians access to previously unreachable archives of the Soviet Union and its satellites and, based on these, old assumptions could be shed, and new lessons learnt. South Africa did not experience the kind of revolution that inspired Gaddis to tell the world what it knew but there is something to be said for the application of his confident and rather self-assured title to an examination of what we now know about the period leading up to the formal end of apartheid in 1994 and the first three years after that. What do we know now and how does that knowledge measure up against the four articles under review in this brief paper? The articles cover a 10-year span, with the first one published in 1987 and the last one in 1997. This was arguably one of the most dramatic periods in South African history and the review essayed here will consider the four articles chronologically. The review concludes that the articles have held up well on the whole and that, with one notable exception, the limit to what the respective authors knew and could know at the time the articles were written has not undermined the articles in any significant way.

Reform versus revolution: Friedman on the promise of reform

Friedman’s article Reform: Greek gift or Trojan horse?’ published in 1987, was written at a time when significant sections of the anti-apartheid movement in both the liberal and radical camps were either suspicious of the possibility [End Page 36] of reform (let’s call these the doubters) or dead set against it (let’s call these the insurrectionists). Many of those suspicious of the possibility of a negotiated end to apartheid tended to do so because they distrusted the intentions of the apartheid state. They saw in its gestures possible entrapment, co-option and eventual demobilisation of the anti-apartheid movement. Those who rejected the possibility of negotiations outright tended to do so because they harboured insurrectionist hopes or held on to the notion that only a popular uprising, preferably an armed seizure of power, could bring an end to apartheid. These were not monolithic groups, to be sure. Some doubters were also insurrectionists while some insurrectionists were also doubters, and so on. Friedman’s first intervention drew attention to the fact that what I have called doubters and insurrectionists had indulged in polemic in place of an ‘analysis of the workings of the reform process’ (1987: 78). Friedman said these critics were so focused on the intentions of the apartheid state they had lost sight of the effect that the state’s voluntary programe for dismantling racism had had on its ability to broadcast its power. Friedman said reforms enacted in the 1980s had ‘weakened state control and contributed to a limited, but significant, momentum for change’ (1987:78). Friedman said the reform process had not only weakened state control, it had also created opportunities for the anti-apartheid movement. However, these opportunities were not given naturally and could only have meaning and effect when used by ‘organized groups who seek change’ (1987:78).

Kite-flying and political posturing: Phillips and Coleman

Friedman argued that reform was a dynamic process that created uncertainty. ‘The uncertainties which it (reform) creates within the state open opportunities for opposition groups to use … to extract concessions which, albeit in limited ways, force the authorities to concede some power to hitherto powerless communities’ (1987:90). While Friedman offered a considered exploration of the possibilities opened up by reform, Phillips and Coleman’s article ‘Another kind of war: strategies for transition in the era of negotiation’, published in 1989, offered a warning to activists, especially the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM), to take seriously the possibility of negotiations and to prepare for it. The article laid out the national and international context in which the prospect of...


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pp. 36-43
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