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Post-Apartheid South Africa

Reply to John S. Saul

Jeremy Cronin is the deputy general secretary of the South African Communist Party, a National Executive Committee member of the African national Congress, and an ANC member of Parliament in the National Assembly where he chairs the Transport Portfolio Committee. He is the editor of The African Communist, and his publications include several collections of poetry. Also see “ A Reply to John S. Saul

John Saul has had an extensive and committed involvement with Southern Africa. His analyses are taken seriously in left circles in South Africa. Sadly, perhaps understandably, his most recent extended visit to this country has left him feeling deeply disappointed (“Cry for the Beloved Country: The Post-Apartheid Denouement,” Monthly Review 52, no. 8, January 2001, pp. 1–51). This sense of disappointment is rooted, I would guess, partly in the intellectual, organizational and even emotional energies that Saul, like many others, invested in the solidarity struggle against apartheid, and in legitimate expectations for a post-apartheid South Africa. There is also, and I want to underline my own empathy with his irritation on this score, a hint of personal hurt: “The most startling thing I personally discovered about the New South Africa is just how easy it has become to find oneself considered an ultraleftist!” (p. 1) This sense of disappointment, even of betrayal, is also present in many progressive circles within South Africa, and indeed among many cadres of our movement. Despite all of this there is, I believe, something seriously off-beam in Saul’s analysis.

Saul’s article has two layers, two sensibilities, two organizing paradigms running through it. To borrow and amend Gramsci’s epigram, we have, woven imperceptibly together, a healthy pessimism of the intellect, and a problematic cynicism of the will.

On the one hand, there is a relatively nuanced analysis of the complexity of the South African negotiated transition and its legacy on the post-1994 situation. I do not think that Saul would disagree fundamentally with, for instance, the South African Communist Party (SACP) characterization of the underlying determinants of the negotiated transition. These determinants were both positive and negative for the liberation movement. The apartheid regime was brought to the negotiating table by sustained, semi-insurrectionary mass struggles that had rolled on, in a series of waves, from 1976 through to the democratic elections of April 1994; growing international isolation, notably financial and arms sanctions, mobilized by an outstanding global solidarity network; a deepening structural crisis of South African capitalism; and a shifting balance in the conventional armed forces equation in Southern Africa, marked by the defeat of apartheid troops by Cuban and Angolan forces around Cuito Cuanavale, in southern Angola in 1987.

There was another factor, fraught with dangers for the liberation movement, but which also served to weaken the strategic trajectory of the apartheid regime. With the waning of the Cold War, there was, from the side of the major imperialist powers, a relative (but not complete) shift of strategy from supporting regional gendarmes in the South. Increasingly, through the late 1970s and into the decade of the 1980s, domination of the South was exercised through financial control, and the concomitant fostering of negotiated transitions to “centrist,” elite-pacting dispensations, producing “democratic” governments capable of driving through macroeconomic austerity, liberalization, and privatization measures with a degree of local legitimacy.

These factors all served to weaken the increasingly militarized apartheid white minority ruling bloc, but there were other factors that compelled the African National Congress (ANC)-led liberation movement to look seriously at negotiations. The Southern African frontline states that had supported the South African struggle (unevenly, but, in several cases generously and heroically) were increasingly taking strain due to vicious apartheid destabilization, the crippling impact of enforced structural adjustment programs, and internal weaknesses and bureaucratization. The stagnation, then collapse of the Soviet bloc, had a major impact on the strategic calculations of the liberation movement. There were other considerations as well; the sustained wave of semi-insurrectionary struggles never really succeeded in projecting mass power out of the spaces of racialized exclusion (the black township and rural ghetto, the segregated black campus, or segregated public transport, or place of worship) into the commanding heights of political and economic power. The maximum weapon of the working class was the stay-away. There were consumer boycotts, train and bus boycotts, school boycotts, and rent boycotts. Mass power tended to be exercised as a temporary (but never permanent) withdrawal, by using the spaces of racial exclusion (which were always simultaneously related to capitalist inclusion) to inflict losses on the core centers of economic and political power. Apartheid was rendered unworkable, and increasingly unprofitable, but power was not about to be “seized.” The regime retained a massive monopoly of repressive power, and the security forces remained relatively intact and effectively organized. In the early 1990s the SACP (again borrowing a phrase from Gramsci) characterized the situation as one of “reciprocal siege.”

I have very briefly rehearsed all of this to underline the relative complexity of the factors underpinning the negotiated transition. The balance of forces was far from being simply favorable, and this has left an inevitable legacy on the post-1994 transformation process. On the whole, and Saul seems to agree, in the first four years of the 1990s, the ANC maneuvered skillfully on the terrain of the negotiations themselves, exposing the regime’s dual strategy (negotiations coupled with a ruthless and intensified low-intensity conflict), winning effective global and national support for our basic demands, and sustaining (although unevenly), rather than demobilizing (as Saul suggests), mass activism throughout the negotiations. This ensured that the negotiations were never reduced comfortably to an elite pact. Mass mobilization served not just to reinforce the national negotiating strategy, but also, increasingly acquired its own localized and sectoral negotiating demands on the shop floor, in the village or municipality.

Since the first nonracial elections of April 1994, Saul correctly observes that:

it is important to repeat the point about just how much of an advance has in fact been made…through the 1994 election and its aftermath, South Africa has been able to realize and to stabilize institutionalized democratic order—making peace without suffering the potentially crippling backlash from the right wing, both black and white, that many had predicted and without suffering the collapse into chaos or dictatorship that some had seen to be threatened by the establishment of majority rule…A cause for celebration, surely, on a continent where apparently less contradictions have proven far more difficult to resolve (p. 4–5).

Nevertheless, despite the real constraints and despite the very real gains particularly in the area of consolidating democratic institutions, Saul goes on to argue that the ANC liberation movement has erred seriously on two critical fronts—the choice of economic policies, and the relative demobilization of our mass constituency (except during electoral campaigns). I agree with Saul on both counts. Indeed, the ANC’s alliance partners—the SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)—have, especially since the mid-1996 unveiling of the government’s macroeconomic austerity policies, continuously argued against this policy choice. In regard to the serious decline in popular mobilization, this is an organizational self-criticism that has been made by all the alliance partners, not least the ANC itself. There are many reasons for it—statist illusions (that change could be delivered from above by the government alone), the unbalanced deployment of thousands of former key grassroots organizers into government, parastatal and security force structures; growing “social distance” between much of the ANC cadre and its constituency, linked to the demographic impact of social transformation and progress itself. Much greater social mobility has meant that township children are no longer necessarily confined to ghetto schools, and skilled black professionals have moved to formerly white suburbs. All of this has had its impact on the coherence and resourcing of grassroots structures in our mass constituency. These dynamics have all been analyzed in many ANC and alliance workshops and policy forums and a range of practical measures are being taken to address the challenge; there are also objective limits, which are now beginning to be apparent, to the actual numbers of cadre who can be accommodated within an emerging elite.

There is much by way of emphasis and detail that I would want to qualify or amend, but I agree substantially with the broad analysis of the last twelve years or so in South Africa that Saul makes in his pessimism-of-the-intellect mode. So what’s the problem? The problem is that this general analysis is continuously trumped by another paradigm, another sensibility. This second approach is announced in the very title of the article, “Cry for the Beloved Country: The Post-Apartheid Denouement,” and in the opening paragraph: “A tragedy is being enacted in South Africa, as much a metaphor for our times as Rwanda and Yugoslavia…”(p. 1). Note the literary and rhetorical flourishes: “denouement,” “tragedy,” “metaphor,” and a title that evokes the novel (Cry the Beloved Country) by the doyen of white South African liberalism, Alan Paton. They announce a paradigm of imminent closure, the revolution that is about to be (has always been about to be) betrayed. This is Greek tragedy, and as Brecht said of such tragedy, it renders the spectator a passive observer. All we can do is emote, as Saul himself says: “One does not know whether to laugh or cry…” (p. 1).

But the imposition of this tragic reading onto what is, in my opinion, still a relatively open-ended, complex, and highly contested reality results in a number of internal disjunctures in the course of Saul’s article.

In the first place, there are contradictory assertions. Thus, on the one hand, the critical indicator of the “defeat” of the revolution in South Africa is said to be the “stabilization of capitalist relations.”

…defeat would seem to be an appropriate description of what has transpired during the past decade in South Africa. For the stabilization of capitalist relations is, by any measure, one clear attribute of the country’s transition (p. 3).

But a key feature of a semiperipheral capitalist economy, like South Africa’s, is precisely its unstable, crisis-ridden character. Saul, later in the article, makes precisely this point (see p. 20). In this context he quotes Colin Bundy’s appropriate riposte to those who argue that advocacy of socialism requires a leap of faith.

to imagine that [through] a milder mannered capitalism…South Africa can somehow be absolved of its economic history and enter a future like that of Sweden or Taiwan: now that really requires a leap of faith (cited pp. 21–2).

I agree absolutely, but then what are we to make of the earlier claim that the key indicator of defeat in South Africa is the incontestable “stabilization of capitalist relations”? Perhaps Saul will respond by distinguishing between a short-term stabilization and a medium- to longer-term instability of South Africa’s semiperipheral capitalism. But then the “defeat” (if that is the right word) of the left is also provisional, rather than “tragic.”

This first disjuncture is directly related to the second. There is a consistent asymmetry in the way in which the programmatic perspectives and achievements of the progressive forces are treated by Saul (often with derision), and the way in which the aspirations of the neoconservatives are portrayed (invariably as established and stabilized fact).

In the run up to the 1999 elections, for instance, the neoliberal think tank, the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), brought out a major report, sponsored by SA Breweries, Policy-Making in a New Democracy. Although its title promised to focus on policy-making, this is not what the report was fundamentally about. It was much more radical in its ambitions. It advocated a major reconfiguration of the South African political landscape—a made-over ANC, under the leadership of a “managerialist” Thabo Mbeki, smashing its alliance with COSATU and the SACP and forging a new bloc, made up of established big business, emerging black business, and conservative rural black communities (those mobilized by Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party, or by the independent, religious movements, like the Zionist Churches). It is no secret that in 1999, and still today, established white capital in South Africa is insecure about Mbeki’s agenda. Wheedling in tone, the CDE report was seeking to woo the soon-to-be-elected President Mbeki into playing the central (Bonapartist) role in its project. Saul (p. 23) quotes from the report—“business leaders who have met Mbeki are positive,” “South Africa is fortunate to have a person of Mbeki’s quality to lead it into the next century”—but completely strips this fawning from its ideological project, and simply presents it as factual evidence for Mbeki’s alignments.1

By contrast, when the general secretary of the SACP, Blade Nzimande, calls for a deeper commitment to socialism, it is praised all too faintly as “a radical-sounding” pronouncement (p. 43). The wishful thoughts of neoliberal policy institutes are treasured as factual gems, the interventions of socialists are dismissed as mere rhetoric. Readers are told that the SACP’s “self-definition” is “as an (ostensible) political party that is at once both mere cheerleader for and occasional left critic of the ANC”(p. 43). The SACP may well have limitations (although its membership numbers have been steadily increasing, not declining as alleged by Saul). But it is not intellectually honest to claim that the SACP acts (still less defines itself) as a “cheerleader.”Indeed, if the SACP were simply a cheerleader, then what are we to make of Saul’s earlier claim that the language used by ANC leaders “to whip…allies into line was harsh…” (p. 34)? He is referring, amongst other things, to the SACP’s 1998 10th Congress, at which both Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki tore into the SACP with, indeed, extremely harsh language. SACP delegates listened respectfully to the critiques of our draft program by the two most senior ANC figures, and then proceeded to adopt every single contentious paragraph—especially criticisms of the government’s illusions about the global conjuncture, macroeconomic policies, and privatization proposals. So much for being cheerleaders, so much for having been “whipped into line.”

The progressive trade union movement is treated with the same derision by Saul. “The unions,” we are told, have “clung to the Alliance,” acting “uncritically at election time” (p. 36). As anyone with even a passing knowledge of the last few years would know, this is a gross misrepresentation. COSATU, while, correctly, remaining committed to the alliance, has played a leading role on many fronts, criticizing and challenging ANC/government policies or the blunders of individual ministers. The most recent elections in South Africa were the 2000 local government elections. COSATU and the SACP played an active role in shaping the ANC election manifesto. In particular, we secured a manifesto commitment to supplying a free basic level of water and electricity to all households, breaking with the user-pays principle for which the World Bank had successfully lobbied prior to this. The ANC manifesto also committed itself to legislating for localized institutions of direct democracy and popular budgeting (ward councils). Both measures are now in the process of being rolled out—of course, with varying degrees of success, often determined by the levels of local popular mobilization and capacity.

What is particularly irksome about Saul’s derisive attitude towards the SACP, COSATU, and, indeed, the ANC, is that there is not a single substantive critique of the South African situation and of government policy in Saul’s article that has not been consistently raised by the SACP, COSATU, and many in the ANC. These perspectives are to be found in SACP and COSATU congress resolutions, programmatic documents, numerous press statements, public interventions, worker songs and slogans, and indeed in action itself. SACP, COSATU, and many ANC militants also raise their concerns and seek to win their positions within the ANC and in a host of ANC-dominated forums—from parliamentary caucuses to government cabinets. These are not secret views, and Saul’s insinuation that critical comment tends to occur “as often as not in private conversation” (p. 45) is another unfortunate sneer. The government’s macroeconomic policy (the Growth Employment and Redistribution framework—GEAR), privatization policies, excessive liberalization measures, the failure to mobilize our mass base, or concerns about growing bureaucratization and the influence of an emerging black bourgeois stratum on policy choices—all of these, mentioned by Saul, are consistent themes raised publicly, and not without a significant resonance within the ANC and the government.

A third disjuncture, or rather reiterated trope, running through Saul’s article is what the South African literary critic and writer Elleke Boehmer, in a somewhat different context, has neatly called the “foreclosure of the frozen penultimate.” Every policy pronouncement by the ANC, every opinion about the ANC from the outside, is read as a portent of the inevitable “sell-out,” which, like the Second Coming, is immanent, always-already amongst us. Saul’s text is littered with penultimates: “the virtual collapse of the ANC as a mass political organization” (p. 9). Progressive advances (like the Reconstruction and Development Program of 1994) are presented as “one last throw of the dice” (p. 17). Tactical concessions made in the negotiations period are said to have “firmly cast the die for future policies.” The major transport parastatal Transnet (I will return to it below) is “one of South Africa’s biggest soon-to-be privatized companies” (p. 37).

Underpinning the disjunctures and the frozen penultimates is, I think, Saul’s deep skepticism about the wisdom of progressive forces in South Africa persisting with the ANC. This, at the end of the day, is what informs his dismissive attitude towards the majority within the actually existing South African left, “wedded” as this majority is to “time-honored icons and homilies” (p. 43). Nothing short of leading the “left” out of its “bondage” to the ANC will, one suspects, begin to satisfy Saul. He may, of course, prove to be correct strategically, there are few guarantees in real life struggles. It is possible that the majority of the left, having played a leading role in building, organizing and ideologically influencing the ANC, is now too sentimentally or existentially enmeshed in its history to recognize that there is no longer a radical transformational potential within the ANC. It is possible, but I do not remotely think so.

Indeed, from his side Saul is extraordinarily imprecise about any feasible alternative organizational strategy. He appears to advocate a “kind of (small ‘a’) alliance of organizations of the dispossessed” (p. 40). He draws on Canadian trade union activist Sam Gindin’s call for a “structured movement,” “something transitional that is more than a coalition and less than a party.” He cites, with some excitement, an article from the South African Financial Mail about an emerging “popular alliance from below” (p. 42). But then he is forced to concede that the “new grouping” is “still described by the Financial Mail as being located within the ANC family” (p. 42). Precisely. In the end, he concludes this section of his argument admitting that: “As for the longer run, it is quite simply premature to say where a revived popular movement of the sort anticipated here might eventually fit into the South African political equation” (p. 42).

If he is so unsure, then he should be less impolite about those who believe that the revived popular movement will fit into (already is within) the ANC alliance. It would be a real tragedy if the left in South Africa declined to rise to the challenges of its actual achievements. The ANC-aligned left (as even the Financial Mail knows) is strongly present in the (now somewhat destabilized but re-emergent) popular and grassroots sectoral struggles of our country. But it would be a betrayal to simply retreat back into the social movement alone, for the left is also in parliament, in government, in the security forces, in the Constitutional Court, in the educational and public broadcast institutions, and many more sites of institutional power. Each of these is a site of struggle, to be sure. We are not alone in these places. In each of these sites, the key strategic struggle is between all ANC-aligned forces on the one hand and a range of neoconservative forces, ranged outside of and indeed within these state institutions. But there is also a secondary contestation within the ANC itself. The struggle, at both levels, is to ensure that popular mobilization impacts on governance, and conversely, that the resources of parliament and the executive are deployed to empower popular mobilization. It would be a grave error for the left simply to retreat out of the state and constitute itself solely as a social movement opposition.

In many parts of the world, a key (often elusive) challenge for the left is to translate a diversity of progressive energies and formations into a majority electoral project. In South Africa, the critical challenge is to ensure that a relatively secure electoral bloc stays mobilized for ongoing socioeconomic transformation and that its leading formations remain democratic. For the majority of progressives in South Africa, it is obvious that all of this requires an ongoing commitment to and engagement with and within the ANC.

To draw these conclusions is not for a moment to be blind to the very real setbacks that have been suffered, and the mistakes that have been made in South Africa over the last several years. In mid-1996, the government unveiled GEAR. The actual document is somewhat eclectic, but, in practice its core features were restrictive macroeconomic and continued liberalization measures (“getting the fundamentals right”), in the belief that these steps would be rewarded with substantial foreign direct investment flows, which would help to boost growth to a sustained 5–6 percent by 2001. Growth levels of this magnitude would, so it was argued, then ensure substantial employment and redistribution possibilities. All of this is relatively familiar fare. In the first years of GEAR, the standard fare was partially alloyed with “black economic empowerment” measures, largely directed at consolidating black participation in the upper echelons of the capitalist economy.

In practice, the budget deficit reduction targets set by GEAR have been overfulfilled, with the deficit around 2 percent; and inflation, certainly domestic demand-driven inflation, curbed well below 10 percent (although the target band of 5–6 percent for next year looks increasingly unlikely, due to rising import costs linked to a significant depreciation of the rand). In the months before its actual unveiling, the task group preparing GEAR had envisaged a 20 percent devaluation of the rand, as a dramatic gesture of “good will” to the markets. Unfortunately, the markets depreciated the rand by almost exactly that amount in the first six months of 1996, while the task group was still preparing the strategy. Much of GEAR’s thunder was stolen before it could be unveiled.

While the fiscal restraint “fundamentals” have been overachieved, the flows of foreign direct investment (FDI), have been exceedingly disappointing, and growth has been sluggish, touching just over 3 percent in some years, and currently around 2 percent. More disastrous, however, are the other socioeconomic indicators. Over one million workers have lost their jobs in the formal sector since 1994. While current levels of unemployment are contested, no one disputes that we have an extremely serious problem. The most recent government figures, which exclude all of those who are unemployed but not currently seeking work, suggest an unemployment figure of around 27 percent. A more recent study (partly funded by the Department of Labour) finds that about 32 percent of the labor force is now unemployed, on the narrow definition, and fully 45 percent are unemployed if all those without work are included. South Africa remains, along with Brazil and Guatemala, the most unequal society on earth. This inequality continues to be highly racialized—average African income is 1,638 rand, while average white income is 6,131 rand. However, reflecting the rapid development of a small but not insignificant black elite, intra-“race” inequalities are now at their greatest among Africans—with top African income earners earning twenty-one times that of lowest income earners. Among whites, the top earners earn twelve times that of the lowest income earners.2

Faced with deepening unemployment, poverty, and inequality, and with disappointing growth and investment, the GEAR policy framework has met with persisting criticism from COSATU and the SACP in particular. From the side of its principal proponents within the government, there have been several adjustments in the face of disappointment. Increasingly, GEAR has been redefined as a conjunctural stabilization program and not what its acronym suggested it once aspired to be (a growth, employment and redistribution strategy). In this rereading, GEAR was necessitated by global turbulence and by a very precarious foreign currency reserve situation in 1996. Its “success” is now measured not in terms of growth, employment, and redistribution outcomes, but anecdotally and by way of comparison—“whatever our problems, South Africa’s economy is not in the same predicament as Argentina, or Turkey, or Zimbabwe,” or “GEAR has helped us to survive the worst of global turbulence” (which may not be completely incorrect).

The failure to attract FDI as promised, notwithstanding “all the fundamentals being in place,” tends to be explained by GEAR proponents as the consequence of “subjective” factors—“perceptions,” “Afro-pessimism,” negative market “sentiment” towards all “developing” economies, etc. The possibility that our problems might be linked to the systemic and objective character of global capitalism and our own semiperipheral position within it tend not to be sufficiently considered. The emphasis is on “marketing”ourselves better, convincing the world that “South Africa is not Zimbabwe,” rather than on adopting antisystemic measures.

The failure to attract sufficient flows of FDI into green-fields projects has also led to a redoubled interest in at least attracting investment through privatization. In the 2001–2002 budget, the government for the first time projected privatization proceeds of 18 billion rand, with a further 22 billion rand in the following two years. In short, faced with the failure of GEAR as a growth and development strategy, its most active proponents have tended to amend and adjust policy, without fundamentally changing it.

However, there is considerable policy instability and the ANC itself (in contrast to the government) has never unambiguously endorsed the GEAR policy. Moreover, those in government who have been most responsible for the policy are not dyed-in-the-wool neoliberals. They are, I think, convinced that the austerity measures were essential, and that they were the only feasible way to ensure the realization of the reconstruction and development objectives we all share. This creates considerable space for an ongoing intra-ANC and intra-alliance process of policy assessment and review. Indeed, besides attempts to adjust or recuperatively redefine GEAR, there have also been more promising shifts. The ANC National General Council, a major policy review process that involved all ANC branches and provinces, and culminated in a two-thousand-delegate conference in mid-2000, resolved that some kind of “macroeconomic stability and predictability” (the acronym GEAR, lacking legitimacy, could not be named) was a “necessary but not sufficient condition” for economic growth and development. This has opened up a helpful intra-ANC and alliance debate on what, then, are the “sufficiencies,” and this debate has shifted us away from a neoliberal focus. The need for an economically active, developmental state and a strategic parastatal sector is now a commonly accepted perspective within the ANC and alliance. Of course, this perspective often clashes with the simultaneous commitment to realizing 40 billion rand in privatization proceeds over the three-year period from 2001. In his state of nation address in February 2001, President Mbeki called for a switch of strategic focus from the “macroeconomic to the microeconomic,” and for increased spending on economic and social infrastructure, while simultaneously promising a major privatization program. The SACP welcomed, at least, the macro to micro switch and the infrastructural investment emphasis. These are very much in line with our continued call for a coherent, long-term, state-led industrial strategy as the core component for any growth and development program.

These challenges and contradictions played themselves out dramatically in the course of 2001. By mid-year, relatively good progress had been made within the alliance in restoring a climate for more rational and comradely economic policy evaluation and discussion. However, the privatization policy remained a major point of contention. At the end of August, COSATU mobilized a relatively successful two-day national strike against the government’s privatization policies. The fact that the strike occurred on the eve of the major UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban provoked anger in many quarters of the ANC. Sectors within the ANC leadership least sympathetic to COSATU and the SACP seized the opportunity. One leading ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) member publicly pronounced the alliance “dead”—although his views were promptly disowned by the ANC.

However, in the months following the strike, alliance relations hit a low point, with sometimes wild, public recriminations emanating from all sides of the alliance. In late November, the ANC circulated an extensive document, “NEC Briefing Notes on the Alliance,” and fifty-two regional general councils (RGCs) were convened country-wide to discuss the document. To its credit, the ANC not only took the debate to its regional cadre in this way, but it invited delegations of COSATU and the SACP to attend each of the fifty-two regional discussions. The briefing document presents the COSATU strike as “a general strike against the ANC government,” rather than against aspects of policy. It notes that some economic policy, like GEAR, is contentious, but declines to discuss it on the grounds that this is not “really” what the worker action was about, “there is much more than meets the eye in the current tension.” The document conjures up the spectre of a “left” (the word was later changed to “ultraleft”) tendency with quasi-treasonable intent. It is never very precise about where this tendency begins and ends. We are told that the “tendency” is “organized and loose, conscious and subconscious.”

Thankfully, the fifty-two RGCs of the ANC helped to restore greater sobriety all round. These councils unanimously reaffirmed the importance of the alliance, and they called for better and more comradely management of the alliance by the national leadership of all three formations. The RGCs also expressed a sense of alienation from government policy development, particularly economic policy, and called for greater intra-ANC and intra-alliance discussion on issues like macroeconomic and privatization policy. This outcome has now laid the basis for a much better climate in alliance relations, and the year 2002 has, indeed, begun with a series of constructive alliance meetings.

Parallel with this policy and ideological roller coaster within the alliance, the actual material “restructuring of state-owned” enterprises provided its own complexities. In the course of the past twelve months, the government has had to renationalize the 20 percent Swissair share in the 80 percent publicly-owned South African Airways; the privatization of airport security is now being reviewed and drastically restricted in favor of bringing back the SA Police Service, in line with post-September 11 international trends; in the publicly-owned post office, the private-sector New Zealand strategic management partner has been fired, for reducing rather than enhancing the economic and developmental role of the post office network; the privatization of state-owned forests has had to be temporarily stopped, following concerns that a senior government official was bribed by the successful “black economic empowerment” tender; and the initial public offering for Telkom, which was intended to be the principal source of the 18 billion rand privatization proceeds for the year, had to be indefinitely postponed in the light of the depressed state of the global telecoms market. The government has come nowhere near its budgeted 18 billion rand target from privatization proceeds.

Most of these developments represent a delay or an externally imposed adjustment to the privatization policy, but there have also been other more promising developments. In November 2000, the Department of Public Enterprises, which is spearheading the restructuring of state-owned enterprises, published a policy framework document (An Accelerated Agenda towards the Restructuring of State Owned Enterprises). For rail freight, it envisaged the concessioning off of the two most profitable and technically efficient lines within the publicly-owned Spoornet stable—Orex, the ore line to Saldanha Bay, and Coallink from the inland coalfields to Richards Bay. The core of the remaining high-density lines was to be retained within Spoornet, but less high-density lines were to be dropped, and potential private sector concession operators sought. This restructuring perspective was proposed by Rothschilds Merchant Bank and the British “turn around” specialists Halcrow, brought in as consultants by the Department of Public Enterprises. However, since 1996 there has been an important National Framework Agreement (NFA) in place between the government and the unions. It commits government and parastatal managers to negotiations with the trade union movement ahead of any restructuring. The NFA has not always worked effectively (one of the grievances in the August COSATU strike), however, in the case of rail, an extremely useful process was undertaken. After some tussling, the foreign consultants were marginalized, and the two government departments (Public Enterprises and Transport), the senior management of the parastatals (Transnet, the umbrella entity, and Spoornet), and the unions developed their own joint technical task teams. The teams modelled different scenarios, and their impact on the economy, on sustainability, and on jobs. In the end, the government has agreed to retain the entirety of the Spoornet rail network in public hands, and the two most profitable lines will not be cherry picked by the private sector, but will, instead, be used to cross-subsidize the broader network.

All of this relative fluidity is an indication, I believe, of the systemic vulnerability of the South African semiperipheral capitalist economy, of the contested nature of the South African transition, and of the capacity of the ANC’s broad cadre, working-class and broader mass base to impact, albeit unevenly, on the trajectory of the liberation movement. These are all reasons to disagree with the thrust of John Saul’s “tragic betrayal” analysis.

There is one more reason, a seemingly anomalous but perhaps, in this case, genuinely tragic reason to disagree with Saul. By a cruel twist of fate, the newly independent South Africa finds itself in the midst of an AIDS pandemic, with possibly one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world. Many, including the World Health Organization and UNAids, agree that the ANC-led government, generally speaking, has an admirable, integrated, and comprehensive program to address the pandemic. In particular, the awareness and prevention sides of the campaign have been enlightened and relatively effective. (There are also very strong, self-mobilized social movements of people infected and directly affected by the pandemic.) However, the treatment side of the program has suffered from considerable prevarication and incoherence. A small but well-placed minority within the ANC/government leadership, publicly led by the late Peter Mokaba, were convinced by the AIDS dissident argument that there is no HIV virus. These comrades have argued that AIDS is caused primarily by poverty and the diseases of poverty—repeated exposure to a barrage of infectious diseases (malaria, TB, STDs). Furthermore, so this argument goes, the case for HIV is being pushed by powerful, transnational pharmaceutical corporations. According to this view, HIV is a profit-seeking ideological construct, not a proven medical fact.3 This is not the official ANC or government position—both have emphasized on numerous occasions that our policies and programs are actively premised on the “assumption that AIDS is caused by HIV.” But there have been hesitations, uncertainties, and incoherence in the implementation of treatment measures, particularly in regard to antiretrovirals.

If we are to evoke the notion of a tragedy, or of tragic irony, then it is here, but strictly only here, that it is applicable. The dissident view within our ranks is not held out of some venal opportunism, still less out of a desire to pander to neoliberal circles in the North. Quite the contrary, the hesitations around antiretroviral treatment have cost the ANC government considerable credibility in those quarters. To compound the tragic irony, the dissident view in our ranks is generally advanced by those who have been least sympathetic to any “dissidence” on the economic policy front. All of this underlines that, contrary to Saul’s frozen penultimate assumptions about an inevitable betrayal to neoliberalism, anti-imperialist sensibilities run deep within the ANC, and they are liable to emerge, sometimes in surprising and, in this case, perhaps in tragically misguided ways.


  1. It is interesting to compare the views expressed in 1999 by this CDE report with the most recent intervention by South African big business. In a report published (in March 2002) by the SA Foundation, Business and Economic Policy: SA and Three Other African Cases, we are told: “The SA business community is probably the largest and most independent-minded private sector on the continent, yet its ability to win the issues it cares about with government does not reflect this” and “relations between the mainstream business community and the ANC leadership (President Thabo Mbeki in particular) remained cool…Mbeki and his advisers appeared to distrust and dislike the private sector….” Needless to say, the SA Foundation report is no less informed by a class agenda than the earlier CDE report. I am not suggesting the claims made by the later report are any more factual than those in the earlier report.
  2. See the Mesebetsi Labor Force Survey, February 2002, by the Norwegian Institute for Applied Social Science (FAFO), funded by South Africa’s Department of Labor and the Norwegian Development Agency.
  3. See the widely distributed 114 page memo, “Castro Hlongwane, Caravans, Cats, Geese, Foot and Mouth and Statistic, HIV/AIDS and the Struggle for the Humanization of the African,” by the late Peter Mokaba.
2002, Volume 54, Issue 07 (December)
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