How whites won the economy

White Power by Christi van der Westhuizen, looks into the NP’s model of neo-liberal capitalism after 1994.

The turmoil in ideological positioning and affiliation that was unleashed on February 2 1990 contributed to the National Party’s plunging legitimacy stakes. As a result of the ANC’s interactions with the West and business, it started to displace the NP as ally of capital, a position which the latter had explicitly been carving for itself since the 1970s. The NP’s shifting class base placed the securing of conditions for continued capital accumulation at the top of its list of things to accomplish during the transition to democracy, next to power sharing. Business made its presence felt at the negotiations through the Business Forum, which included most of the significant organised business players, ranging from the Council of South African Bankers to the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut and the Chamber of Mines. But the formal negotiations would be only one of a clutch of processes aimed at achieving the ‘correct” economic policy outcome.

The NP was among those who ensured that the outcome would place obstacles in the way of redistribution of wealth to address the country’s extreme levels of inequality. Domestically, big business also worked towards this end, while internationally, the United States government’s extensions — the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — played their part. This process was facilitated by the fact that the ANC lacked a detailed policy on the economy, a situation compounded by the collapsed legitimacy of socialist alternatives.

The void was filled by the NP and the other players. Within the ANC alliance, contending forces were pushing a state-centrist, socialist-inspired position against a liberal-capitalist position that reflected the ANC’s historical roots as a party of middle-class intellectuals. The latter won the day. As the economic adviser in the South African presidency remarked years later: ‘ANC policy had come full circle.”

In 1979, the ANC’s Green Book had elaborated on the nationalisation of mines, banks and industry, vaguely propounded in the 1955 Freedom Charter.

By 1988, in a joint communiqué with the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congresses, the ANC had moved to emphasise that it was ‘not a communist organisation”. Rather, it supported the eradication of social inequality on the basis of race. No reference was made to class.

On the NP’s side, given that the power balance in the party had tipped towards the verligtes [liberals] after Muldergate and [Andries] Treurnicht’s departure, the predominant feeling was that ‘the economy and economic perspectives were important”, says Leon Wessels. ‘PW [Botha] regarded it as important; the business summits he held were important. The fear of nationalisation and expropriation of property was substantive — In the NP it was felt that we had to speak about these things and we would have to convince the ANC otherwise.”

The NP did not set out a single strategy to convince the ANC, but connected with like-minded forces inside and outside the country. In the end, promotion of the ANC’s reorientation to a neo-liberal position happened in concrete ways at several levels and in different forums that had started even before [FW] De Klerk became president. Meetings between top state officials and ANC economists had been arranged while the ANC was still in exile, the first being at a luxury location in Lausanne, Switzerland.

There, in June 1989, senior civil servants such as Jan Lombard, deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, and Estian Calitz, deputy director-general in the department of finance, engaged in lively debate with Tito Mboweni, destined to become governor of the Reserve Bank, and Maria Ramos, who became director-general of finance after 1994 and later the chief executive of Transnet, South Africa’s largest parastatal. Members of big business and business associations also attended.

Thus NP politicians and corporate representatives found echoes for their own thinking in what was being said by ANC leaders such as [Thabo] Mbeki, Mboweni, Trevor Manuel, Ramos and Saki Macozoma, as well as [Nelson] Mandela himself. These dynamics precipitated the ANC’s movement from a leftist position espousing nationalisation to a liberal-capitalist stance with a social-democratic flavour.

By April 1990, the ANC was mostly using nationalisation as a threat to stop the NP’s privatisation policy in its tracks, but was increasingly stepping away from it as a policy option. An economic policy discussion document titled ANC and Cosatu Recommendations on Post-Apartheid Economic Policy, drawn up in Harare, contained such threats. But it also revealed the extent to which the ANC and Cosatu had moved ideologically.

The document propounded redistribution brought about by growth rather than the other way round — a position that was on a par with the NP’s own at the time. It also prioritised fiscal conservatism; the avoidance of balance of payment problems; inflation; and competitiveness. By 1992, the ANC had been won over for the most part. Its policy document Ready to Govern explicitly advocated a ‘growth and development” path, reflecting the hege­monic position that favoured growth.

In particular, the Mont Fleur scenario-planning exercise at a conference centre in the Cape winelands broke ground by changing key ANC role player Trevor Manuel’s mind about pursuing a ‘growth through redistribution” model. He was especially impressed by Derek Keys, a former mining executive whom De Klerk had brought in as minister of finance.

Keys lived up to his name and became the key player in the NP’s efforts to change the ANC’s economic minds. He took the time to explain to Manuel the dangers of ‘macroeconomic populism”, marking the start of ‘a friendship and mentoring relationship across the political divide”.

In the person of Keys, the NP provided a meeting point for big business and the ANC.

This is the context in which the NP’s role in swaying the ANC towards neo-liberalism should be seen. While the greater economic community was exerting its influence on the ANC, the NP was the ‘vehicle which rounded off the final negotiations”. It did this with the assistance of its ‘loyal supporters” Sanlam and Volkskas, which, according to Wessels, ‘strongly pressured the NP, saying you have to fight to the bitter end for property rights, a free market system and so forth. You have to remember that there had always been a very cosy relationship between the NP and those institutions. They used that access to exert pressure on the NP. The NP also said to them, ‘Don’t just speak to us. Talk to the other guys.’ And the other guys were willing to speak to them.”

By the end of 1993, the ANC had agreed to the principle of an independent Reserve Bank — so crucial in the implementation of monetary policy — being entrenched in the constitution. They also agreed that Derek Keys — personifying the NP’s primary contribution to ensure an elite transition — would stay on as minister of finance after the 1994 election. A multiparty team under his leadership had already begun drafting the first post-apartheid government budget by the second half of 1993. This extension of economic policy into the democratic era was the NP’s greatest feat at the negotiating table.

In one of history’s ironic twists, one nationalist party handed over power to another in a transition where both embraced neo-liberal capitalism and, to a qualified extent, liberal democracy. Both parties had exchanged state interventionist stances for the promise of market ‘freedom”. In the NP’s case, the verligte wing in particular had been convinced since the 1970s that class interests superseded those of race.

The entrenchment of neo-liberal capi­talism during the transition translated into the continuation of apartheid and colonialism’s legacy of extreme inequality. Consequently, white people could hold on to their pre-democracy gains. That was what the NP’s negotiators delivered for most of its constituency — a result that contradicted subsequent Afrikaner talk of ‘betrayal” by their leaders. The NP had to mostly abandon its communitarian principles in favour of a libertarian variant of liberal political values as a safeguard for white socio-economic privilege.

The outcome was predictably less favourable for the ANC’s constituency, hence attempts by the post-1994 government to ameliorate the effects of neo-liberalism with panaceas such as social welfare grants and a limited public works programme. The NP lost political power, but whites held on to economic power.

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