Mbeki's revolutionary nationalist agenda

Alex | Sep 30, 2009
James Myburgh detects hidden currents of radicalism in the president's political psyche.

When Thabo Mbeki became president in 1999 he was widely regarded as a pragmatic pro-Western moderate. He had supported negotiations with the NP government in the late 1980s and was instrumental in persuading the ANC to drop socialist economic policies, so it seemed reasonable to assume that the party had discarded its revolutionary agenda and that Mbeki was a reformist. Doubts were raised by Mbeki’s rejection of scientific explanations of HIV/Aids, but when he attacked both the SACP and the DA at a national conference, people were lulled into complacency once again, despite the fact that numerous conference speeches referred to the ANC as a ‘revolutionary movement’ whose goal was ‘the fundamental transformation of society’. Mbeki’s great insight in the late 1980s was that the ANC could achieve through negotiation what it had failed to achieve through armed struggle. This was a brilliant strategy but it did not reflect a commitment to moderation. And although he resigned from the SACP, it would be wrong to assume that he no longer subscribed to its ideas. Historically, socialism appealed to black nationalists as a means of fulfilling Africanist aspirations. When socialist economic policies became an obstacle to the ANC’s quest for power after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Mbeki and other black nationalists within the ANC dropped them, but retained Leninist politics, albeit a special version that conflated race and class, as expressed in Mbeki’s Two Nations thesis. This racial Leninism provided them with a blueprint for overturning South Africa’s unjust historic order. It is important to note that Leninism is not opposed to reforms or compromises: any means are justified so long as they further the revolutionary movement. Thus a 1992 document setting out the ANC’s negotiations strategy stated that at each phase of the ‘democratic revolution’, circumstances might require certain alliances and compromises; however, these were merely tactical and should not block the party’s ultimate goals. In order to gain power, therefore, the ANC conciliated minorities and civil servants by agreeing to a government of national unity, a liberal interim constitution and an impartial civil service. Once these concessions had served their purpose, they could be discarded. After 1994 the ANC’s objective became the displacement of the white minority from key centres of power. By 2000 it had secured most of the top positions and began to focus on middle management. The ANC can afford to take a gradualist approach because of its overwhelming electoral majority. At a Broederstroom meeting in 1993 the party leadership looked to implement its agenda over a 20 to 25year period. It is this patience that many have confused with moderation. The ANC’s objective in the next phase, as stated in the new preface to Strategy and Tactics, is the ‘elimination of apartheid property relations’ through the Africanisation ‘of ownership and control of wealth, including land’.

On Thabo Mbeki's accession to the South African presidency in 1999 he was widely described as a pragmatist and pro-Western moderate. Tom Lodge, the foremost analyst of the African National Congress (ANC), described Mbeki as a "status quo" politician who would pursue the path of gradual rather than dramatic change. "The moderate, middle-of-the-road government policies which he's helped preside over and craft," Lodge noted at the time were "in line with the kind of reputation he had in the 1980s of being one of the centrists of the ANC".

This reputation of Mbeki rested on his advocacy within the ANC - in the late 1980s - of entering into negotiations with the National Party government, rather than continuing with the armed struggle. From the early 1990s he had been instrumental in moving the ANC away from socialist economic policies, so that once in government it kept tight fiscal discipline and followed careful macro-economic policies. From these developments the reasonable assumption was drawn that the ANC had discarded its revolutionary agenda. Since Mbeki had been one of the main architects of these shifts this made him a reformist and a pragmatist. His credentials as a moderate were further buttressed, in the eyes of the West, when sections of the left - John Saul and others - accused the ANC under his leadership of betraying the socialist revolution in favour of the interests of capital.

Although Mbeki's rejection of the findings of Western science on HIV/Aids forced a reconsideration of this view his recent silence on the matter has allowed many commentators to lapse back into their old complacency. Since Mbeki attacked both the South African Communist Party (SACP) (for its 'ultra-leftism') and the Democatic Alliance (DA) (for its liberalism) at the national conference, some observers concluded that this must make the ANC under his command centrist and social-democratic. Although party documents and speeches at the conference were suffused with references to the ANC as a "revolutionary movement" whose goal was "the fundamental transformation of society" their significance tended to be dismissed. How could this self-conception of the ANC be reconciled with the negotiated settlement and the move away from socialism?

Mbeki's great insight in the late 1980s was that the ANC could achieve through negotiation - and presenting a reasonable face - what three decades of armed struggle had failed to achieve, and bring the movement to power. This was brilliant strategically but it was not, of itself, a reflection of his commitment to moderation. Earlier in the decade he had made the call for South Africa to be made ungovernable.

When the SACP was unbanned in 1990 he had, along with a number of his followers, long since left the organisation. Although he had sat on the party's highest councils during the course of the 1970s and 1980s he makes no mention of his SACP membership on his curriculum vitae. It is a mistake though to presume that those who resigned from the SACP then left without any ideological baggage.

From the late 1980s the SACP, prompted by Joe Slovo, attempted to come to terms with the decay, and then collapse, of the Soviet bloc. As Jeremy Cronin has explained, Slovo "argued that the key weakness in the Soviet system was a tragic undermining of democracy". As a result of this intervention the SACP moved away from some of the more noxious ideas of orthodox Leninist doctrine - chiefly, democratic centralism and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Those who had formally left the party when it was no longer prohibited often retained Marxist-Leninist ideas. The lessons drawn from the collapse of communism by the black nationalist grouping which gravitated around Thabo Mbeki were quite the converse to that of the SACP. Historically, socialism appealed to African nationalists not as an end in itself, but rather as means of fulfilling Africanist aspirations. President Julius Nyerere explained the 1967 decision to nationalise the Tanzanian economy as serving primarily a nationalist purpose. "The only way" he said "in which nationalist control of the economy can be achieved is through the economic institutions of socialism". By the 1990s such policies, as Mbeki realised, were not only no longer credible but also an obstacle to the movement coming to power. But while this grouping in the ANC moved away from socialist economics it remained wedded to Leninist politics. This was a Leninism of a special type, though. The conflation of the concepts of race and class - which found most notable expression in Mbeki's Two Nations thesis - allowed much of the analysis, and many of the prescriptions of Leninist doctrine to be applied to South Africa's racially divided society.

The appeal of this (racial) Leninism to the African nationalists was that it provided a blueprint for the revolutionary transformation of society. For while they had no particular emotional attachment to socialism they possessed a passionate desire to overturn an unjust historic order and harboured a deep contempt for existing institutions and their incumbents. Although the collapse of communism had closed off one route for the attainment of their aspirations, particularly nationalisation, that only meant that the movement would have to search out others.

Leninist doctrine does not necessarily elevate one form of struggle over another: the point is, in a sense, that any means are justified. Equally, as Stalin remarked in Foundations of Leninism, it is absolutely wrong to think that Leninism is "opposed to reforms, opposed to compromises and agreements in general". What matters, Stalin wrote, is the use that is made of such reforms. The reformist will accept reforms in exchange for buying into the system. For the revolutionary, though, they are merely an instrument "for disintegrating [bourgeois] rule" and for strengthening the revolution "into a strongpoint for the further development of the revolutionary movement".

In November 1992 the ANC national working committee adopted a document setting out the ANC's strategic perspective on the negotiations. The document stated that the "Democratic Revolution" would proceed through various phases. At each stage, "the balance of forces, our strategic objectives and our long-term goals" would dictate the need to "enter into specific, and perhaps changing, alliances: and make certain compromises in order to protect and advance this process". But the document argued that these compromises and agreements should not place any permanent obstacle in the path of the ANC's strategic objectives, they were tactical and (by implication) only temporary: "We should ensure that the immediate objectives we pursue do not have the effect of blocking our longer-term goals".

In the early 1990s the ANC's only real strength lay in its mass support. The objective then was both to whittle away the National Party's hold over the levers of state power (through the insistence, at that time, that they be placed in independent hands). A related objective in the negotiations was to secure majority rule. In order to ease the old ruling party "out of power without undue resistance" (and the ANC in) fearful minorities and civil servants were conciliated. The ANC agreed to the adoption of a government of national unity and a liberal interim constitution - which enshrined the principle of an impartial civil service.

Assurances were made that minorities would not be discriminated against by the ANC's affirmative action policies.

However, the ANC leadership did not see the 1994 elections as a negotiated settlement (although they may have led others to believe they did). As the ANC's 1997 Strategy and Tactics document put it, 1994 was a "beach-head" which the movement could now use to begin fundamentally transforming the state and society.

Thus, having inflicted a "strategic defeat" on "the forces of white minority rule" the concessions and assurances made by the ANC during this stage could be discarded over the next.

In an address to the ANC's National Constitutional Conference in March 1995 Mbeki stated that the interim constitution and government of national unity "were contrived elements of transition" to facilitate the transfer of power from the "oppressor white minority regime to those of the democratic majority". At no stage were they "conceived as elements of permanence, as a perennial feature of South African society". Since the goal of the ANC was the "revolutionary transformation of our society" the final constitution should, Mbeki urged, allow for "major surgery of society and state".

The final constitution adopted in October 1996 was far more majoritarian than the interim one. The power-sharing provisions were dropped and many of the liberal provisions were watered down. The clear statement in the interim constitution on the impartiality of the civil service was replaced with a vague and ambiguous formulation.

The objective of the ANC now moved on to the displacement of the white minority from key centres of power, and extension of party control (and black hegemony) over the state machinery. In 1997 the ANC adopted demographic representivity - which by its nature was highly discriminatory against minorities - as official party policy. It also began openly deploying ANC 'cadres' to key positions within the state in an effort to bring the main levers of power under party control. The guiltless white civil servants who the ANC had so carefully placated before (when they were seen as an actual threat) were now labelled as counter-revolutionary. The watchdog bodies whose independence the final constitution had supposedly guaranteed were rendered harmless by political appointments. By 2000 the ANC boasted of "having achieved considerable progress in the deployment of political and administrative heads" and called for the emphasis to be shifted to middle management positions. Control was further deepened as (at least in certain departments) ANC heads of department appointed party members to positions below them.

In February that year Joel Netshitenzhe, the ANC's chief ideologue, summed up the party's achievement: "In 1994 we had to ensure a smooth transition that did not create fertile ground for counter-revolution as we together delicately negotiated the removal from power of the old classes and strata. Negotiation of that smooth transition which entailed many compromises was revolutionary. It might not have been militant but it was revolutionary".

The ANC was able to pursue such a project gradually because it possessed an overwhelming and entrenched electoral majority. Whatever other resources the party lacked the one that it had in abundance was time. At a Broederstroom meeting in 1993 the ANC leadership looked to implement its agenda over a twenty to twenty-five year period. The ANC could make concessions, at each different phase, in the knowledge that over time (and once the balance of forces had shifted far enough in their favour) they could be discarded. It is this patience that many commentators confused with moderation.

Thus, although the ANC leadership that ascended to office under Mbeki in 1997 was acutely aware of the international and domestic balance forces, and although they sought a racial rather than a socialist transformation, this did not detract from the passionate determination to change the existing order. These factors might affect the pace of change, as well as the route taken, but there would be no retreat from the ultimate goal. The objective of the ANC in the new phase of the democratic revolution is, as the new preface to the Strategy and Tactics document puts it, the "elimination of apartheid property relations" through the Africanisation "of ownership and control of wealth, including land"