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  • Reflecting on the struggle for democracy:a reply to John Saul1
  • Ben Turok (bio)

John Saul is well known for his many writings on the liberation movements of southern Africa. In recent years, he has focused on South Africa and particularly the African National Congress (ANC). He is a sharp and persistent critic with a significant following in academic circles.

His paper, ‘The struggle for South Africa’s liberation: success or failure?’ asked if our current situation was ‘precisely the moment for South Africa … to choose between … the “exhausted” … and “failed” nationalism of the ANC and … the politics of “the working class and the poor”’. His argument developed the following points:

  • • that prior to 1994, the stage was set for ‘a capitalist-friendly ANC’ to ‘settle the problem’ of colonial apartheid through a negotiated accession to formal power – despite the belief of some that South Africa was ripe for revolution. He quoted Ronnie Kasrils’ assertion that, ‘[i]f we had held our nerve, we could have pressed forward without making the concessions we did’;

  • • that the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) were entrapped in negotiations and became crucial in guaranteeing a new post-apartheid system of class power. Saul makes reference to Frantz Fanon’s view of former leaders of liberation struggles who became ‘intermediaries’ acting ‘in their own class interests but also on behalf of capital’.

Saul’s main case is that a ‘new class’ – ‘the national middle class-in-the-making, the nationalist elite’ – ‘represented by the ANC’ gained power ‘on the back of the liberation struggle’. [End Page 45]

The response

Many of us have been mulling over the transition to democracy for some time. I do not agree that the transition can be considered either a success or a failure. It was both. The liberation movement won some of its objectives – the replacement of the apartheid regime by a democratically elected government in a unitary state and a constitutional order based in equal rights for all – but it did not win others. Even on the main count of political power, the ANC modestly speaks only of ‘a democratic breakthrough’. I believe it was bigger than that, and even Saul acknowledges that ‘overthrowing apartheid was a remarkable step forward’.

But the struggle had two main components: political power and socioeconomic transformation as set out in the Freedom Charter, especially (but by no means only) in its economic clause. There is now abundant evidence of a slippage on economic issues in the discussions that Thabo Mbeki and others held with representatives of the apartheid regime in the 1980s. I recall a meeting of the ANC branch in London where we were briefed on a proposed bill of rights for the Constitutional Guidelines document. The omission of socio-economic rights was obvious.

This downplay of economic issues was in contradiction to the ANC’s 1969 Morogoro Consultative Conference view that the broad purpose of the struggle was ‘the complete political and economic emancipation of all our people and the constitution of a society which accords with the basic provisions of our programme – the Freedom Charter’. It was also against the position of the SACP (eg Slovo’s South Africa: no middle road), despite its strong presence in the ANC national executive of the time. So why did the ANC soft-pedal economic issues during the transition period?

The answer has yet to be developed clearly. It is hoped that ongoing research by Vishnu Padayachee and Rob van Niekerk will provide the evidence once and for all. However, Saul’s suggestion that it was due to a ‘nationalist elite’ acting as ‘intermediary’ for capital is not persuasive. The leadership of the ANC in exile was far from an elite. It included working-class communists such as Moses Kotane, JB Marks and Joe Slovo and many other leaders who came from African township or rural backgrounds.

There was a negotiated settlement; that is a fact. But was it arranged between a conniving regime and a ‘capitalist-friendly’ ANC? Or was it due to the threat of an impending civil war that neither side could win or escape without huge cost? It is too easy to forget the...


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pp. 45-49
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