In 1967 I heard Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere make a statement, summarised here by the newspaper of his party, the Tanganyika African National Union, at the time:
“Nyerere called on the people of Tanzania to have great confidence in themselves and to safeguard the nation’s hard-won freedom. Mwalimu [Nyerere] warned that the people should not allow their freedom to be pawned … most of their leaders were purchasable. He warned further that in running the affairs of the nation, the people should not look on their leaders as saints and prophets.
“The president stated that the attainment of freedom in many cases resulted merely in the change of colours, white faces to black faces, without ending exploitation and injustices, and above all without the betterment of the life of the masses. He said that [when] struggling for freedom, the objective was clear, but it was another thing to remove your own people from the position of exploiters.”
Are such images of a presumed African liberation north of the Zambezi not resonant of what actually happened in South Africa?
In the 1970s, Steve Biko was asked in an interview to identify “what trends or factors … are working towards the fulfilment of the long-term ends of blacks”, and he responded that the regime’s deep commitment to a racial hierarchy had actually acted as “a great leveller” of class formation among the black population, and had dictated “a sort of similarity in the community”. The “constant jarring effect of the [apartheid] system” produced a “common identification” on the part of the people.
By contrast, Biko said, in the more liberal system envisaged by the Progressive Party of the time, “you would get stratification creeping in, with your masses remaining where they are, or getting poorer, and the cream of your leadership, which is invariably derived from the so-called educated people, beginning to enter bourgeois ranks, admitted into town, able to vote, developing new attitudes and new friends … a completely different tone.”
South Africa, he continued, was “one country where it would be possible to create a capitalist black society. If the whites were intelligent. If the Nationalists were intelligent. And that capitalist black society, black middle class, would be very effective at an important stage.
“Primarily because a hell of a lot of blacks have got a bit of education – I’m talking comparatively speaking to the so-called rest of Africa – and a hell of a lot of them could compete favourably with whites in the fields of industry, commerce and professions. And South Africa could succeed to put across to the world a pretty convincing integrated picture with still 70% of the population being underdogs.”
Biko saw that the one way open to the dominant classes of the time was that of defusing black anger and growing resistance in South Africa by dumping apartheid and opting for a free-standing capitalist system of colour-blind class distinction.
Then, and in line with Guinean revolutionary leader Amilcar Cabral’s worst nightmares, they could even move to invite the ANC inside the tent of a new post-apartheid system of class power and distinction.
This is precisely the transition that did occur. In the end, there were numerous complications, especially between 1990 and 1994, but this process did produce a successful transition beyond apartheid and a step forward – I would be the last to argue otherwise.
But what occurred, simultaneously, was a recolonisation of South Africa by capital, with the ANC and the South African Communist Party acting as the intermediaries in guaranteeing such a outcome. The vast mass of the South African population were the real losers.
How else to explain the feeble result that the transition from apartheid has produced in South Africa? How else, indeed, could we interpret it?
Ronnie Kasrils has written of the ANC and the SACP having “chickened out” in the early- to mid-1990s. In this “Faustian moment”, “the battle for the ANC’s soul got under way, and was eventually lost to corporate power; we were entrapped by the neoliberal economy”.
Canadian author Naomi Klein writes that the ANC lost any accurate sense of what was going on and became the prisoner of capital; it was naive about the dangers of the capitalist entanglements it was taking on. She cites economist Vishnu Padayachee as arguing that “none of this happened because of some grand betrayal on the part of the ANC leaders but simply because they were outmanoeuvred on a series of issues that seemed less than crucial at the time”.
Klein quotes author and political commentator William Gumede on the transition. She says he told her, “with great exasperation: ‘We missed it! We missed the real story … I was focusing on politics – mass action, going to Bhisho … But that was not the real struggle – the real struggle was over economics.'”
The SACP’s Jeremy Cronin, in a 2013 speech titled How We Misread the Situation in the 1990s, presents a markedly weaker argument. Naivety is again the key: “In particular, we vastly overestimated the patriotic credentials of South African monopoly capitalism (and its soon-to-emerge narrow-BEE [black economic empowerment] hangers-on)”, who advised the ANC and SACP “to open all doors and windows to attract inward investment flows”.
The result was “almost the exact opposite”: “Surplus generated inside South Africa, the sweat and toil of South African workers, has flown out of the open windows and open doors. Between 20% and 25% of GDP [gross domestic product] has been disinvested out of the country since 1994.”
Cronin asks: “Why had it taken us nearly 19 years to appreciate the need for a second, radical phase of our democratic transition?” But he really gives no answer. Why, indeed?
Thus, for Kasrils, the ANC/SACP lost its nerve; for Klein, the ANC was “short-sighted”, and for Cronin it “misread” the situation (for 19 years).
Surely a more straightforward explanation in terms of class dynamics is more potent. A new class, politically victorious, as centred on and represented by the ANC, gained power on the back of the liberation struggle, broadly defined, and used that power in both its own interest and in the interests of global capitalism.
ANC and SACP veteran Rusty Bernstein, writing to me not long before his death in 2002, said: “The drive towards power has corrupted the political equation in various ways.
“In the late 1980s, when popular resistance revived again inside the country led by the UDF [United Democratic Front], it led the ANC to see the UDF as an undesirable factor in the struggle for power, and to fatally undermine it as a rival focus for mass mobilisation.
“It has undermined the ANC’s adherence to the path of mass resistance as a way to liberation, and substituted instead a reliance on manipulation of the levers of administrative power. It has paved the way to a steady decline of a mass-membership ANC as an organiser of the people, and turned it into a career opening to public sector employment and the administrative gravy train.”
How was the UDF persuaded to fold its tent and disappear? It was by no means straightforward, though for UDF historian Jeremy Seekings, it was a no-brainer. He quotes Peter Mokaba, then president of the South African Youth Congress: “Now that the ANC can operate legally, the UDF is redundant.” Seekings calls this “a logical, unavoidable, even unremarkable event”.
Historian Ineke van Kessel, by contrast, notes that those who wanted the UDF to continue “envisaged the UDF’s role as one of watching over the government, [and] remaining prepared to activate mass action if the need should arise”. She records the “demobilising effect” of the UDF’s demise, with the ANC doing little or nothing to sustain people’s spirit of active militancy.
In sum, we have mass involvement trumped by knee-jerk vanguardism. Vanguardism – that is, residual Stalinism – doesn’t sit comfortably with genuine active popular democracy from below.
If Bernstein’s insights were taken seriously, neither historians nor politicians could get away with absolving the ANC for its key role in the defeat of the liberation struggle – though the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the strength of South Africa’s primarily white capitalist class and the power of global capitalism must also be given their proper weight.
Philosopher Frantz Fanon was closest to the mark when he wrote: “The national middle class discovers its historic mission: that of intermediary. Seen through its eyes, its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission lines between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the masque of neocolonialism.
“The national bourgeoisie will be quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent, and it will play its part without any complexes in a most dignified manner.”
This is an edited extract from an address delivered at the Mail & Guardian Book Fair. John S Saul’s most recent book, written with Patrick Bond, is South Africa – The Present as History: From Mrs Ples to Mandela and Marikana (James Currey and Jacana)