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Freedom indefinitely postponed

The African National Congress claims that it is close to securing a historic victory for blacks in South Africa. Charles Longford looks at the ANC's latest policy document and concludes that, in fact, Africa's oldest liberation movement has finally abandoned the struggle for black majority rule

When four white people were killed by members of the Azanian People's Liberation Army in King William's Town at the end of November, South Africa's president FW De Klerk loudly condemned the attack as 'an act of terrorism'. It was a predictable piece of apartheid hypocrisy. These were the first white civilians to die in such an attack for years. Meanwhile, De Klerk's government has presided over the deaths of thousands of black people in South Africa, while denouncing the smallest sign of retaliation as murderous terror.

Terrorist brush

The remarkable thing was not De Klerk's routine condemnation, but the response of the African National Congress (ANC). In the past, the ANC has often been tarred with the same 'terrorist' brush. This time, however, the ANC agreed with the regime that such black violence constitutes 'an act of terrorism'. That was just for starters.

By the end of the week, Cyril Ramaphosa, ANC secretary-general, and Roelf Meyer, De Klerk's minister of constitutional development, had issued a joint statement after three days of closed talks, stating that there was now a 'shared responsibility to ensure a multi-party negotiated transformation to a democracy', which had to take place 'rapidly'. And just as the ANC endorsed the government's definition of what now constitutes terrorism, so it has accepted the De Klerk regime's redefinition of exactly what sort of 'democracy' South Africa should rapidly be transformed into.

Sham rights

The ANC leadership has accepted the government's proposal for a general election to elect an interim government of 'national unity', in which minority political parties with proven support will be guaranteed representation. This body, serviced by the existing civil service of the apartheid state, will draft a new post-apartheid constitution in which South Africa's diverse ethnic groups will receive constitutional protection.

The proposals may sound democratic and fair, but in the context of the realities of South African society they are a sham. All the talk about 'minority rights' is simply a diversion from talking about the basis for real democracy; black majority rule. In South Africa, 'minority rights' has long been a code word for protecting the socio-economic power of the white minority elite. The fact that the ANC will now entertain such a scenario indicates the extent to which it has retreated from the democratic principle at the heart of the liberation struggle: the principle of one person one vote, black majority rule.

It is sometimes inevitable that, in the course of political struggles, a liberation movement will be forced to accept compromises. The problem in South Africa today is that the ANC is trying to sell its compromise on majority rule as a great step forward for the black majority. Instead of explaining that the 'interim government of national unity' has been forced upon them by the authorities, ANC leaders are presenting as a victory the prospect of their involvement in a government which will enshrine the principle of 'minority rights' - that is, white capitalist power.

Compromise today

This is not the action of a liberation movement taking pragmatic temporary steps in difficult circumstances. It suggests that the ANC is going much further, redefining what constitutes a victory and therefore what the liberation struggle is really all about.

The new ANC policy document, 'Negotiations: a strategic perspective', adopted in November after some debate and controversy, has became the basis for these compromises. In section five of the document, 'Goals of the National Liberation Struggle and our immediate objectives', the ANC tries to explain the relationship between liberation tomorrow and compromise today:

'The fundamental goals of the National Liberation Struggle should not be confused with the immediate objectives we set ourselves in each phase of the transition. At the same time we should ensure that the immediate objectives we pursue do not have the effect of blocking our longer-term goals....The objectives we set, and can attain in each phase will depend upon the balance of forces.' (p6)

This counterposition between the long-term 'fundamental goals' of the struggle and the definition of immediate objectives is the key to unravelling how the ANC is abandoning the struggle for black liberation in practice.

Balance of forces

What are the 'fundamental goals of the National Liberation Struggle'? Well, until the end of the Cold War, the goal was said to be the socialist transformation of South African society. The collapse of Stalinism and the ANC's conversion (along with its Communist Party mentors) to market economics has got that little confusion out of the way. Now the only 'fundamental goal' remaining is black majority rule and the removal of white social, economic and political privileges. The question is whether the 'immediate objectives' which the ANC is pursuing through its deal with the government advance or set back this goal.

It is fair enough for the ANC policy document to suggest that the tactical objectives to be pursued depend upon the current 'balance of forces' between the state and the black opposition. Everybody has to take account of realities. But there is a problem here. The 'balance of forces' between two sides is dictated by political struggle; each side subjectively seeks to tip the balance in its favour. To read the ANC document, however, you might think that the balance of forces has fallen from the sky, and imposed an 'objective' requirement for the ANC to compromise and form an alliance with the De Klerk regime.

Act of God?

In section six of the document, 'The need for Government of National Unity', for example, we read that 'objective reality imposes a central role for the ANC and the NP [National Party] in the transition....This means the balance of forces has forced on to the South African political situation a relationship between the ANC and the NP'. (p7)

It sounds as if 'the balance of forces' is an act of God, something visited upon South African society for which no man is responsible and which all are powerless to resist. Of course, this is nonsense. The present situation in South Africa has not been brought about by chance nor by divine intervention. It is the result, as we have consistently argued in Living Marxism, of a conscious political strategy ruthlessly pursued by the De Klerk regime, that has exploited the flaw in ANC politics.

Moderating the ANC

When the ANC claims that 'objective reality' has imposed certain limited 'immediate goals' upon the movement, it is really saying that it accepts the results of De Klerk's strategy. The 'objective reality' it is talking about is the conservative-influenced political climate in South Africa, which has been brought about by the government's successful attempt to moderate the liberation movement.

From the outset, De Klerk's aim in legalising the ANC was to transform the liberation movement into a junior partner of government. He has pursued this aim along two tracks: moderate the ANC leadership, while isolating those hostile to compromise.

Black civil war

The government has used Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha movement and dirty tricks by its own security forces to transform the liberation struggle into a civil war within the black community. In the process of dividing the majority black population, the Pretoria regime has isolated militancy and fostered moderation. You need only recall how the ANC more or less accepted the charge that its mass protests were responsible for the massacre of demonstrators at Bisho, to see how successful De Klerk has been in moderating the ANC's outlook.

By caving in to pressure from the regime, the ANC has redefined what constitutes a realistic political strategy today. When the government said that armed struggle was a barrier to the 'peace process', the ANC abandoned it (the government did not reciprocate). When the government blamed mass action for the breakdown in negotiations, the ANC gave in again. Having forsaken the armed struggle and conceded that mass action is a non-starter, the only 'strategy' left is negotiations with the government.

In this situation, the ANC's relationship to its base of support has become less important than its concern to keep the negotiations process alive. Anything that threatens the talks must be sacrificed. Whether they are condemning black 'terrorism' or criticising militant protests, the ANC leaders have almost adopted the language of apartheid's rulers and are already acting like junior partners in government. They now rely for their survival more upon their relationship with the National Party than with the black masses.


The ANC's reliance on the National Party is the uncomfortable truth which the policy document seeks to disguise. If that truth were to be admitted, the ANC's 'immediate goals' would be exposed as the acceptance of a shady deal based on what De Klerk is offering today, rather than as positive steps towards the 'fundamental' goals of the liberation struggle. That is why the document is at pains to obscure reality with convoluted Stalinist-speak, talking about everything from 'dialectical interconnection(s)' to 'changing the conjuncture'.

The most disastrous diversionary manoeuvre the ANC leaders are going through is their claim that negotiations represent a victory for the liberation movement and a defeat for the 'forces of apartheid' (p5). But if negotiations represent a victory, why is it the ANC that is compromising its principles? Moreover, how does conceding the principle of black majority rule today ensure its achievement in the long term? The ANC argues that, in the phase of interim government, it can create 'more favourable conditions' (p6). But how can giving into the enemy's demands improve the conditions? And in any case, why should the ANC need 'more favourable conditions' if today's negotiations represent a step forward, and a defeat for the 'forces of apartheid'?

The key question which all of this avoids is, who has the initiative in the political struggle? The ANC leaders' twisting and turning cannot disguise the way that they are clinging on to De Klerk's coat tails in the hope of gaining a place in government. Behind all of their talk of 'objective realities' they have embraced short-term expediency as a way of life, while the long-term 'fundamental goal' - freedom - has been postponed indefinitely.

Over the rainbow

The tension between short and long-term goals has always existed in the ANC programme. In the past, the struggle against apartheid for black majority rule was the 'immediate goal', while the socialist transformation of South African society was the 'long-term' one. The separation of these stages in theory, in conditions where it was impossible to separate them in reality, meant that the 'long-term' goal of socialism was always put off until somewhere over the rainbow.

Today there is no longer any talk of the 'socialist transformation of South African society'. The collapse of the Soviet model, which many in South Africa saw as the alternative to capitalism, means that market economics rules. There is nothing particularly startling about this. Most leading members of the ANC were always hostile to anti-capitalist politics. But what is significant is that yesterday's 'immediate goal' - the achievement of black majority rule - has now become the long-term one, something to be hoped for in the indefinite future.

This 'objective reality' did not come about through Providence. Nor was it inevitable. Instead it is the result of a government strategy which has both taken advantage of the favourable 'balance of forces' brought about by the end of the Cold War, and exploited the fundamental tensions at the heart of ANC politics.

With the threat of a challenge to South Africa's socio-economic system lifted by the collapse of Stalinism, De Klerk has been able to draw in the liberation movement's leaders by offering them the prospect of black participation in the institutions of a post-apartheid capitalist South Africa. 'Negotiations: a strategic perspective' reveals how far De Klerk has been successful in making the ANC a part of the 'objective reality' now working in his favour.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 52, February 1993

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