Year One of the Transition

Against the Current, No. 58, September/October 1995

John Pape

“The fact of the matter is South Africa after one year has become the symbol of hope for reconciliation and democracy worldwide.” –Editorial, Sowetan newspaper, April 27 1995

“Our ship is on course.” –Nelson Mandela, April 23, 1995

“Ordinary people like me have not experienced any change.” –Vincent Maphala, Squatter camp resident, April 1995

ON MAY 10TH South Africa celebrated the first anniversary of democratic rule. The first post-apartheid year has surprised many people. For those pessimists who expected an escalating civil war, there has been steady progress towards a stable political order. For those optimists who awaited a radical transformation process, there have been only a few moments to rejoice.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of this first year has been its relative tranquillity. The months running up to the first election in 1994 were dominated by death squad activity, sabre rattling from the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) of Gatsha Buthelezi, and what seemed to be an emerging civil war situation in a number of places. But while many expected the killing fields of the East Rand and rural Kwazulu/Natal to envelop the entire country, violence has receded. While about 1,000 people have died in political violence, this was far less than many expected.

For the most part the first year has been calm. On this level, the government of national unity (GNU) has worked effectively. The apparently unstable power-sharing and reconciliation agreements among the ANC, the former ruling National Party and the conservative Zulu-based IFP have managed to hold together.

The reasons for this peace are somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, peace has been built through the initiative of thousands of people working at the community level. In a number of former “hot spots” local peace structures have been established. Through a lengthy process of negotiations and monitoring they have managed to control IFP paramilitarist and other saboteurs.

While the peace structures represent a bottom-up aspect of the reduction in violence, an equally important factor is the change in attitude of whites. While racism has certainly not disappeared overnight, many of the fears of a “radical” ANC have proven groundless. As John Kane-Berman, Director of the liberal South African Institute of Race Relations noted: “I think many whites [who] might have feared that things under black majority rule would be terrible have found that black majority rule is no worse than National Party rule.”

The right-wing newspaper The Citizen echoed these views: “The government to a great extent has trodden carefully, neither taking away land nor making life impossible for white farmers… The threat of nationalization of key industries has faded and that, too, has eased tensions.” In this sense, then, peace has been bought at the expense of justice. (I will discuss the implications of this later.)

Laws for A Post-Apartheid Society

The absence of major violent conflict has meant that the GNU has been able to move on schedule toward the elaboration of a permanent constitutional government. The existing political structures are part of an interim settlement, designed to last five years. During this interim period, the various power players have the task of drawing up a permanent constitution.

At the same time, lawmakers have the job of establishing a legal framework within which the present and future government must operate. This is no small piece of work. For instance, although the elections of a year ago put nine new provincial governments into place, there was no legal means by which these governments could obtain money for operating. Enacting such legislation took several months, during which time these provincial ministries and departments were essentially empty vessels.

More importantly, the new parliament has taken measures toward legalizing basic human rights. As might be predicted, apartheid law was hardly a bedrock upon which an equitable society could be built. Indeed lawmakers and negotiators have spent an exhausting year drafting bills, consulting with “stakeholders,” re-drafting and, in some cases, finally passing a wide range of new laws. Most important of these are those involving women’s rights, land, and labor relations.

For the first time in the history of South Africa certain rights are now written into the law or are part of draft legislation soon to be passed. These include legal equality for all regardless of race or sex, the recognition that certain people had rights to land which was forcibly taken from them by previous governments, and the right of workers to form unions and strike. These are major advances for which a society once founded on a “crime against humanity” can be justifiably proud.

While negotiators have been attempting to chart the future, they have also been occupied with how to handle the past. After a protracted series of negotiations, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established. This body will be entrusted with unearthing the crimes of the apartheid era and identifying the guilty parties. While nothing of the Nuremberg scale of retribution is envisaged, the determination to at least unveil the perpetrators of clandestine murders and sabotage represents an unprecedented development in post-colonial African societies. While the crimes of colonialists were no less ignominious in many other parts of the continent, a policy of “forgive and forget” was generally adopted. In South Africa by contrast, the cry is “we can forgive but we can never forget.”

Indeed the list of the achievements of Nelson Mandela’s government is impressive. Yet for all the legal frameworks and consultative forums that have been created, there are some crucial components missing from what could be called a genuine transformation process.

Public Servants As the Elite

To begin with, we must look at the personnel of the government itself. Within these structures generally we find two types of people. The first are the life-long white and black civil servants. Loyal implementers of apartheid policy, these people have been guaranteed jobs for a minimum of five years by the constitutional settlement. Clearly no champions of change, the vast majority of these clock punchers are putting in time at best and actively sabotaging at worst. As a group they represent perhaps the biggest obstacle to social change in South Africa. Amongst them they have considerable power to block any progressive directives or policy measures taken at the ministerial level.

But if the old public servants are obstructionists, many of their successors seem no less devoted to self-service. In the past year one of the most important terms to appear in the new lexicon is “gravy train.” This refers to lucrative civil service posts created for new arrivals. The gravy train now boasts a few thousand passengers and many more are submitting their resumes in the hopes of getting on board. The gravy train has meant that almost overnight many former “comrades” of the mass democratic movement, exile, or Robben Island have changed: their mode of transport has gone from train to BMW, their mode of dress has moved from jeans and “struggle” T-shirts to Pierre Cardin, and their place of residence has shifted from township to expensive former white suburb.

In short, the core of a new ruling class is emerging with startling rapidity. As Arnold Stofile, chief whip of the ANC put it, “we did not struggle to get third-class salaries, we were fighting for first-class salaries.” With the typical member of parliament earning roughly six times a teacher’s wage and ten times that of a highly paid factory worker, first-class salaries are no longer a dream for these former “comrades.”

Creating A Friendly Business Climate

The second major area of concern is the economy. Economically the debate has shifted to rightward ground with incredible rapidity. Just two years ago nationalization was a core element of ANC policy. Today the concept is viewed as a dinosaur. Terms that were reactionary heresy in the early 1990s are widely accepted by 1995. Fiscal discipline, incentives for foreign investors, and export-oriented growth are the linchpins of the economic policy. In an interview summarizing the achievements of the first year, Nelson Mandela said he viewed two of his most important accomplishments as creating a “friendly trading environment” and “an investor-friendly environment.”

In fact the GNU economic agenda has emerged as so moderate that words of praise have flowed from both the IMF and local business. James Gordon of the IMF’s Africa Department lauded the ANC’s new found belief in free market principles and rejection of “government profligacy”. In his words:

“A commitment to trade liberalization, together with a dramatic switch to favoring less, rather than more, public ownership, has buttressed the government’s free market credentials.” He went on to set the objective for the path the GNU has chosen: “The challenge is to give all South Africans a stake in the market

While local mine owners and international finance can breathe a sigh of relief, mass organizations do not appear to be destined to fare so well from the “new” South Africa. In the 1980s South African civil society was the envy of progressives around the world. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was a massive and vibrant trade union federation, strategically combining militant shop-floor structures with a long-term socialist political vision. The township based civics were establishing participatory democracy in an array of communities across the country, often mobilizing their constituencies for stay-aways and rent boycotts. The youth, especially organized students, could paralyze a number of cities on given days with thousands of toyi-toying youngsters demanding “peoples education for peoples’ power.”

These forces, particularly the labor movement, have engaged in a number of militant mass actions in the past year. Transport workers have blocked all the roads going into Durban, the country’s largest port. A number of public service unions have taken industrial action–even the police. Students at a number of universities have occupied buildings, demanding an end to discrimination. Scarcely a week goes by without a strike or student protest hitting the headlines.

Does Mass Action “Work”?

Yet, taken as a whole, mass action has been militancy without direction. Organizations are mired in the tactics and demands of the past. While employers and government officials talk of workplace forums, conflict resolution, and transparent processes, mass organizations seem unable to cope with the new terrain of dealing with a government which has considerable legitimacy. Gone are the days when black workers or students instantly occupied the moral high ground by uttering a grievance. Under a democratic government mass action must be clear and defensible. Whereas demonstrating against the apartheid regime was almost considered “natural,” protesting against the Mandela government can provoke stern responses from an array of popular forces.

No better example of this exists than in the question of payment for services in the townships. For over a decade residents in many townships, Soweto included, have refused to pay for water, electricity and rent. This action was taken in protest against exorbitant pricing and illegitimate local government. But now the government is linking the delivery of services to communities to payment.

This approach by the government has left the civics, the initiators of the boycotts, in total disarray. Thousands of citizens continue to refuse to pay for these services. Yet no coherent motivation for this refusal has been given. To intensify the contradiction, a parade of former civic leaders who have joined the parliament, such as Moses Mayekiso, have publicly supported government’s demands for payment. The counter from communities has been confused.

While economic justice could easily mandate that whites should subsidize black services through higher taxes, such a position is anathema to the spirit of national reconciliation embodied in the government of national unity. Other arguments could be advanced which link payment to specific delivery or cost of services. But instead, the quasi-boycott has gradually wound down with no clear explanation or increase in service delivery.

The concern with this process is that people at the grassroots may conclude that mass action is not an effective tool. Furthermore, when such action lacks clarity and is met by government accusations of social irresponsibility and refusal to comply with the spirit of reconciliation, the deterrent to organize becomes even stronger.

This, then is a brief balance sheet of some of the achievements and problems of the first year of ANC government. But the situation is far from static. Despite the calm on the surface, there are still major questions to be answered.

Is The Honeymoon Over?

First, there is the matter of whether the ANC-led government can actually deliver a program of economic redistribution. The test of this depends on what shape the government’s Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) takes. During the first year there has been talk of new houses, reallocation of land, improved education, etc. but there has been very little delivery. The new rulers have constantly reminded the people that change cannot come “overnight.” People may be willing to accept that comrades coming out of the struggle may take some time to fully grasp the reigns of power. But the honeymoon period of waiting and forgiving the newcomers will not last forever. As one Soweto civic activist put it, “these new MPs tell us to wait for houses and electricity, but they don’t wait to buy their BMWs and new houses in the suburbs.”

Mandela and RDP Minister Jay Naidoo have promised that the second year will be the year of delivery. But it remains to be seen if the ANC government actually has the power and the will to deliver. In order to mount any effective redistribution program the government must show some willingness to step on the toes of the business sector, wealthy whites and international capital. Redistribution, especially state initiated, is not popular in the mid1990s.

The South African Chamber of Business and the IMF constantly warn the government by trotting out the failures of government intervention in countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe. But clearly the private sector is not going to build houses and schools at a loss. Nor will whites volunteer to pay levies in order to equalize services between themselves and the historically oppressed. To date the government has shown an incredible politeness in dealing with those forces who want to simply wipe the slate clean and start from “a level playing field.” If more determination is not forthcoming, the majority will likely continue to suffer the effects of living in shanties without water and sewerage, of a 46% unemployment rate, and of an education system which has produced a less than 50% literacy rate amongst the black population. Problems of these dimensions will not be solved through the trickle down of corporate profits as the current orthodoxy seems to advocate.

Lastly, there is the question of the left. South Africa has the most diverse and longstanding socialist tradition on the continent. The once-Soviet aligned South African Community Party has shown a remarkable increase in membership in the 1990s–perhaps the only communist party in the world to experience meteoric growth in this decade. But an increase in membership to from 2,000 in 1990 to some 75,000 today has not easily translated into a clear program adapted to the new era. Since the death of Chris Hani more than two years ago the party has floundered–unwilling to assert a socialist program independent of the ANC and even unsure about what a socialist program would look like in these conditions.

Under the rule of unbridled apartheid capitalism, class and race fit quite neatly together. The populist rhetoric of the ANC could easily meld with the supposedly more radical vision of the party. But under an ANC government which is riddled with all the contradictions of a centre-right coalition, the party is struggling to find an identity.

As Boris Kagarlitsky has written: “For socialists an agreement with the ruling class…must be to the proletariat’s advantage and part of an overall strategy.” The problem is that the SACP has an interlocking structure with the ANC. While many of the most prominent figures in the government, such as Deputy Vice President Thabo Mbeki, have abandoned longstanding party membership, at the same time, some of the leading architects of the conservative shift in economic policy such as Deputy Finance Minister Alec Erwin remain steadfast party members. If the SACP is to maintain the loyalty and active participation of its overwhelmingly working-class base, the party will have to make a stand against many of the compromises of the government as a whole as well as confront the role of their own members in driving those compromises.

The March 1995 Party Congress showed few signs of such a confrontation taking place. General-Secretary Charles Nqakula declared that the alliance with the ANC was permanent and went out of his way to denounce “populists” who criticized the government’s political compromises and slow delivery of services.

As for the remainder of the left, sectarianism seems to be the order of the day. The most powerful left force outside of the government is the Azanian Peoples’ Organization (AZAPO). Unlike the PAC, AZAPO chose not to contest the 1994 elections. Their purist stance has enabled them to maintain their view, as expressed by one regional organizer that the GNU “simply panders to whites.” Such a critical stance may ring strike a sympathetic cord with some of the oppressed, but this has not facilitated the expansion of AZAPO’s base. The same holds true of Trotskyist organizations such as the Workers’ Organization for Socialist Action (WOSA) and the New Unity Movement.

Perhaps the highlight of the “left year” was a unity conference held in late 1994 under the auspices of the SACP. While this event did manage to bring all nearly all socialist forces together, little of a coherent left plan for the future emerged.

Ultimately the real key to the strength of the left resides not in any political parties but in COSATU. In the first year this federation has shown far more critical thinking than the SACP. With an estimated more than 1,000,000 members COSATU is hardly in danger of becoming a tiny sectarian grouping.

While COSATU has chosen to remain in political alliance with the ANC and SACP, union leaders have advanced independent and progressive positions on a number of key questions in the past year. Perhaps their most crucial intervention was a concentrated move against the draft Labor Relations Act which guarantees employers the “right” to “lockout.” In addition, COSATU has been active in trying to take charge of the direction of the RDP. As Deputy General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi put it: “workers should begin to claim ownership of the RDP rather than simply play the role of watchdog and leave implementation up to government.”

But while COSATU has taken a number of steps to oppose the rightward drift of economic policy, such moves have a limited capacity to consolidate the federation as a left alternative. There are two key reasons for this. First, rank-and-file membership has little awareness of the overall policy debates. Though there has been a wave of mass action from workers in the past year, nearly all of it has been directed at demands around wages and working conditions. With the “brain drain” taking many of COSATU’s leading intellectuals into government positions, it remains to be seen whether the federation has the strength to mount a consistent analysis of economic issues as well as educate and mobilize the rank and file to oppose the expected influence of free market ideology.

But more importantly, the top layer of leadership has shown some wavering tendencies in targeting the government and the ANC for criticism. While COSATU has taken independent action, much of it has been at the initiative of shop steward and local affiliate militants. At times, the national head office appears to be dragged kicking and screaming into mass action.

This reluctance on the part of head office reflects the competing loyalties amongst the national leadership. Many holders of key COSATU positions are SACP members with strong historical ties to the powerful amongst the ANC. Given these conflicting agendas at COSATU head office, openly opposing government policy or attack specific ministers may pose a difficult dilemma. Hence, while COSATU is a source of hope for the left, at the same time a strengthened mass base and top leadership is needed for the union federation to develop into a consistent proponent of an alternative vision. Such a restructuring of the continent’s largest labor organization is certainly a very tall order.

Where is South Africa Going?

So with the left as a somewhat marginalized force after year one, where is South Africa likely to go in years 2, 3 and 4? There are a few possible likely directions. The best case scenario would be the evolution of a moderately social democratic regime, operating in a Third World context. If the more popular forces can assert themselves and assemble a coherent strategy, significant gains could be won in terms of provision of services and infrastructure. It would not be impossible to at least see thousands of low-cost houses being erected, to find schools being expanded and curriculum qualitatively changed, and to see the basic rights of workers and women being respected. Ideally this could occur within the framework of some sort of constitutional democracy which would at least ensure free and fair elections and a culture of political debate.

But such a process will need two important components. First, it will need consistent pressure from below: clearly targeted mass action focused both on specific immediate demands and more strategic questions. Second, a core of government leaders will have to show their faces as backers of such a program. At the moment every politician is paying lip service to delivery. But in the future more difficult choices will have to be made: Does the government bolster defense or build houses? Does the government upgrade airports or build mass transit? Does the government increase consumption tax or income tax? Do resources go to support Cape Town’s bid for the 2004 Olympics or for more infrastructure? These are questions where some forces within the government must fall on the progressive side if redistribution is to occur.

[Perhaps the first public test of a politician making this sort of choice was the case of Winnie Mandela. Notwithstanding Winnie’s own will-known contradictions, she has repeatedly articulated many of the disappointments of ordinary people about the moderate pace of change. Her dismissal by her estranged husband was loaded with disturbing implications.

[First, no explanation was ever given for her firing, other than that she was “undisciplined.” Second, the fact that she, as the former partner of the President and a Deputy Minister in the Cabinet, was dismissed so summarily may not bode well for the fate of rank-and-file women or political dissidents. The lesson is that any members of parliament, particularly women, will have to plan their strategy extremely carefully in the future if they want to publicly criticize the commitment of the government to address the needs of the oppressed.]

But there are certainly scenarios worse than moderate, peaceful social democracy. If popular demands cannot occupy center stage, two other visions of South Africa could win the day. The most likely is the corporate dream of a free market, structurally adjusted South Africa. Within one year of taking power the Ministry of Finance has already accepted fiscal discipline and opening up the economy as gospel. The IMF/World Bank complex lurks in the background, alert to any opportunity to insert free market principles onto the economic agenda.

Only popular pressure can block the advance of Structural Adjustment. Nowhere else on the continent has a country been able to successfully resist the indomitable force of the IMF Structural Adjustment Policy. But nowhere else on the continent has there ever been a COSATU, a South African National Civic Organization (SANCO), a National Education Coordinating Committee, a National Women’s Coalition and a communist party with an expanding working-class base.

If the resistance is coherent and unified, the free market may be able to be curtailed. But if the resistance is fragmented, the winds of change in South Africa may end up blowing in a very rightward direction.

Like the moderate social democratic path, the free market scenario assumes a certain degree of political and social stability. While at the moment this seems likely, it is not inevitable. The forces that destabilized the entire sub-region have not been removed from the military or, as yet, publicly identified.

Right-wing paramilitary activity suffered a heavy setback with the arrest of more than two dozen terrorists just before the 1994 elections. But if the Timothy McVeighs of South Africa (of which there are still many) feel themselves too threatened by black rule, there is no assurance they won’t mount another offensive. And within the South African National Defense Forces and “legitimate” political parties like the IFP there are forces who would gladly lend a hand to such a destabilization campaign. Such civil strife could force the government into a difficult corner where its own ability to actually control and rule the armed forces and the country as a whole could come into question.

No one ever suggested that abolishing the legacy of apartheid would be easy. Without a leader who commands the moral respect of Nelson Mandela, it is doubtful that South Africa could even have completed one year of relatively stable rule under a popularly elected government. But permanent stability, and indeed the “better life for all” promised by the ANC, are still a long way away.

As for socialism, as in so many other countries, the dreams of the left have been driven back into the remote corners of the society: the small discussion groups, the left-wing bookshops, the odd public seminar, the coming together of old comrades when an internationally known Marxist comes to town. Perhaps an organized left can re-emerge if the next round of the GNU fails to deliver, but a far more coherent and radical program of action will have to be articulated and put into practice before socialism can come close to gaining the political significance it commanded here a decade ago.

THOSE WHO THINK the credibility of creationism was forever destroyed by the Scopes “monkey trial” of the 1920s are in for an unpleasant surprise. Evolution, the organizing principle of modern biology, is again under assault.

Fundamentalist schools have special biology textbooks that teach evolution only to refute it. More insidiously, evangelical Christians, who now control several thousand school boards, have begun to reinsert creationism into public school biology classrooms under the doctrine of “equal time.”

Conservatives who ask that evolution be taught as a theory up for grabs act as if evolution were seriously contested. They neglect to say that the arguments against evolution are all formulated by creationists and rejected by scientists. The arguments of fundamentalists are not “creation science.” They are a subterfuge for the insertion of religious doctrine into the classroom.

While mainline Christian denominations accept evolution as the method by which God accomplished creation, fundamentalist Protestants believe that Adam, the first man, was created instantaneously by God and was immortal until the moment he sinned. Since evolutionary theory contradicts the literal scripture, fundamentalists hold belief in it a threat to salvation.

Fundamentalists argue that intelligent design is the only explanation for the patterns found in nature. They also claim that evolutionary doctrine leads to the belief that the world is purposeless, meaningless, careless, and impersonal. Because evolution puts humanity at the highest level of developed natural forms, they say, it undermines faith in a higher power, leading to moral relativism.

But the significance of the Darwinian revolution actually undermined the presumption that humankind was at the center of creation, beginning with Adam and Eve. It had the same effect as earlier inquiry that revealed that the earth revolved around the sun and the earth was not the center of the universe–propositions which the church also resisted tooth and nail.

Evangelicals claim that evolutionary theory is just as religious as creationism. They call Darwinism “the officially sponsored, government-backed creation myth, with scientists the priesthood.

But no one claims that salvation will result from accepting evolutionary theory. And scientists do not ask that their word be accepted on faith. Evolutionary theory is based on demonstrable propositions, which anyone can verify: a common genetic code, the fossil record, shared anatomy. Sound geological evidence contradicts the Biblical postulation of a worldwide flood.

If a myth is a story that must be accepted as it is, a dogma, then evolutionary theory is not a myth. It is an organic body of knowledge, modified according to many new findings since Darwin. Creationism, on the other hand, is a myth. It belongs in classes on comparative religion, where the Biblical story can be compared to the Hopi, the Iroquois, the Aztec, and all the other creation stories.

Creationism may prove to be one of the weakest links in the armor of the Christian Coalition. Voters in Vista, California, recalled a Christian Coalition majority after the school board put creationism on equal footing with evolution. But in hundreds of other districts, the Enlightenment is already vanquished.

ATC 58, September-October 1995