From the Archive | Part 2: From people’s to state politics

In this second of a two-part series, Michael Neocosmos shows how the politics of liberation moved from being people-centred to becoming state-centred.

This is an excerpt from Michael Neocosmos’ From people’s politics to state politics: aspects of national liberation in South Africa 1984-1994 (1994).

Before moving to a brief assessment of the 1990s it is pertinent to make some general points about the ideology and practice of this mass movement of the mid-1980s. What stands out is an attempt to develop genuinely popular forms of democracy in both ideology and practice. In particular, the general characterisation of the mass struggle as national and democratic combined both territorial and popular democratic aspects of the process. In fact, the two were regularly combined in attempts by leading activists to theorise the process of struggle. As Murphy Morobe, the “Acting Publicity Secretary” of the UDF, stated in 1987:

“We in the United Democratic Front are engaged in a national democratic struggle. We say we are engaged in a national struggle for two reasons. Firstly, we are involved in political struggle on a national, as opposed to a regional or local level. The national struggle involves all sectors of our people – workers (whether in the factories, unemployed, migrants or rural poor), youths, students, women and democratic-minded professionals. We also refer to our struggle as national in the sense of seeking to create a new nation out of the historical divisions of apartheid. We also explain the democratic aspect of our struggle in two ways … Firstly, we say that a democratic South Africa is one of the aims or goals of our struggle. This can be summed up in the principal slogan of the Freedom Charter: ‘The People Shall Govern’. In the second place, democracy is the means by which we conduct our struggle … The creation of democratic means is for us as important as having democratic goals as our objective … When we say that the people shall govern, we mean at all levels and in all spheres, and we demand that there be a real, effective control on a daily basis … The key to a democratic system lies in being able to say that the people in our country can not only vote for a representative of their choice, but also feel that they have some direct control over where and how they live, eat, sleep, work, how they get to work, how they and their children are educated, what the content of that education is; and that these things are not done for them by the government of the day, but [by] the people themselves … The rudimentary organs of people’s power that have begun to emerge in South Africa (street committees, defence committees, shop-steward structures, student representative councils, parent/teacher/student associations) represent in many ways the beginnings of the kind of democracy that we are striving for … Without the fullest organisational democracy, we will never be able to achieve conscious, active and unified participation of the majority of the people, and in particular the working class, in our struggle.”

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I have cited this passage at length because it clearly sums up the systematisation of popular experiences and demands which some leaders were able to eloquently make. Clearly, this statement has more the character of an ideal to be struggled for rather than a simple description of reality; nevertheless it indicates the centrality of popular democracy within the ideology and practice of the movement. It is important to note first (I shall have occasion to return to this below) that the main slogan of the Freedom Charter (“The people shall govern”) is given a specific interpretation by the UDF, namely to mean a popular form of democracy and not simply an electoral multiparty system or, for that matter, a one-party system (as its vagueness could also imply). In fact, the former is explicitly rejected as the exclusive form of representation, and as too limited a form of democracy. Thus an evidently vague and indeed “populist” slogan in the circumstances of the time, could be given an unambiguous popular-democratic content. It would be a fundamental error to confuse the content of such democracy with its own slogans and its self-presentation, as many did, who at the time dismissed the UDF as a “populist” organisation. In practice the social movement was giving rise to a form of mass democracy and a form of state unique in South Africa (and probably also in Africa as a whole); these forms of democracy and state have, arguably, gone largely unrecognised by most intellectuals, by the party of state nationalism, the ANC, and even by many of the movement’s own leaders.

Two features of this democracy worth noting were a detailed system of controlling leaders to be accountable to the rank and file membership, and a different way of demarcating “the people” from “the oppressors”. Attempts at instituting internal democracy within organisations were strongly followed, although they obviously had various degrees of success. The important point, however, was that there was such a struggle for democracy in organisations. The various dimensions of this democracy were according to Morobe:

1. Elected leadership. Leadership of our organisations must be elected (at all levels), and elections must be held at periodic intervals … Elected leadership must also be recallable before the end of their term of office if there is indiscipline or misconduct.

2. Collective leadership. We try and practise collective leadership at all levels. There must be continuous, ongoing consultation.

3. Mandates and accountability. Our leaders and delegates are not free-floating individuals. They always have to operate within the delegated mandates of their positions and delegated duties.

4. Reporting. Reporting back to organisations, areas, units, etc, is an important dimension of democracy … We feel very strongly that information is a form of power, and that if it is not shared, it undermines the democratic process. We therefore take care to ensure that language translations occur if necessary.

5. Criticism and self-criticism. We do not believe that any of our members are beyond criticism; neither are organisations and strategies beyond reproach.

However, by (February) 1989, it had become clear that some individuals were beyond criticism, as when an attempt was made by the UDF (and Cosatu) to publicly censure Winnie Mandela (by a committee including Murphy Morobe), it was blocked by the ANC in Lusaka. In fact, many were aware of the danger posed to popular democracy by the lack of control of the popular movement over a number of “charismatic” leaders who felt they had the authority to speak and act without being mandated. Thus, Isizwe, the main journal of the UDF made a rather prophetic statement in 1985:

“One thing that we must be careful about … is that our organisations do not become too closely associated with individuals, that we do not allow the development of personality cults. We need to understand why we regard people as leaders and to articulate these reasons. Where people do not measure up to these standards they must be brought to heel – no matter how ‘charismatic’ they may be. No person is a leader in a democratic struggle such as ours simply because he or she makes good speeches … No individual may make proposals on the people’s behalf – unless mandated by them … We need to say these things because there are some people and interests who are trying to project individuals as substitutes for political movements.”

The practices of “mandates and report backs”, which had been adopted largely as a result of trade union influence, were taken particularly seriously in the mid-1980s, although there is evidence that they started to decline at the end of the decade. By 1991, the position had changed substantially so that Mayibuye, the journal of the ANC, now pompously proclaimed: “Accountability is the basis of democratic organisation. Accountability means that leadership must discuss decisions with the membership. Decisions must be explained so that members understand why they are made.”

We are a far cry here from “People’s Power”. The manner in which the popular movement demarcated its members (“the people”) from the oppressive state is also worthy of note. This largely surrounded the notion of “non-racialism” as a way of characterising the ideology of the movement as well as the nature of the state which was being fought for. Originally inherited from Black Consciousness discourse, which used the term to refer to all oppressed racial groups in South Africa under the characterisation “black”, “non-racialism” was adapted by the UDF to include whites who supported the struggle. This struggle was visualised as uniting into a national opposition the disparate groups which the apartheid state divided, hence the main slogan of the UDF: “UDF unites, apartheid divides!” One important aspect of non-racialism was that rather than distinguishing “the people” or “the oppressors” on racial grounds, it did so by demarcating on political grounds: popular-democrats from anti-democrats. The former were those who supported change “from below”, the latter those who proposed some form of “tinkering from above”, and who had by this period lost the confidence of the majority. Democrats were all those who opposed “minority rule” and supported “majority rule” through popular democracy. In the words of a UDF discussion document from 1986: “The essential dividing line that we should promote is between supporters of minority rule and majority rule. The common ground between the Botha [sic], the PFP (Popular Federal Party, the main white, big business-backed liberal opposition at the time) leadership and big business is that they all seek solutions within the framework of adapting minority rule. Although they differ fundamentally on who to involve in negotiation and how much adaptation is necessary, these elements all agree that the system must be changed from the top down, with the solutions being decided over the heads of the people. All those who accept the right of the people to determine the process of change are allies of the people and part of the NDS (National Democratic Struggle).”

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This meant that the conducting of the popular struggle should also be “non-racial”. Terror Lekota, a senior UDF figure, put it this way: “In political struggle … the means must always be the same as the ends … How can one expect a racialistic movement to imbue our society with a non-racial character on the dawn of our freedom day? A political movement cannot bequeath to society a characteristic it does not itself possess. To expect it to do so is like asking a heathen to convert a person to Christianity. The principles of that religion are unknown to the heathen let alone the practice.”

Such a position was possible precisely because the social movement was not an elite movement and because white “progressives” (to use the jargon of the time) provided invaluable work both in the trade unions and in the UDF, thus becoming known and appreciated by the people of the townships. It served to divide a minority of white democrats from white racists (while forcing the uncommitted to commit themselves), in the same way as affiliation to popular organisations divided blacks between collaborators with the state (so-called “sell-outs”) and the majority of the oppressed. This attempt to create the unity of a “new nation” can be contrasted with the attempts, in the 1990s, to do so “from above” via “reconciliation”, “nation building”, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) or indeed “affirmative action”.

In turning to a brief examination of the period after the unbanning of the ANC and other proscribed organisations up to the national elections of April 1994, my intention is simply to make the point that the politics of liberation have been conducted in a markedly different way, which I would describe as “state centred” rather than “people centred”. I do not wish here to attempt a detailed explanation for such a change as not only are considerations of space prohibitive, but this is intended to be the subject of future research. Two examples will help to illustrate these changes: the altered role of “civics” and some of the views surrounding this changed role; the changed role of mass mobilisation at least up to the end of 1992, after which it largely ceased to exist altogether.

It is very instructive to note the path taken by civic organisations. Perhaps the most important step on this path was the setting up of the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) in 1992. As its name indicates, this was set up explicitly as an organisation designed to operate at a territorial level while its member-organisations transformed themselves from being autonomous affiliates of an umbrella organisation (such as the UDF) basically into branches of a national body. In the words of one critical activist: “It requires that local civics surrender their autonomy and local accountability.” The preamble to Sanco’s constitution defines it as a body that will “act as a non-partisan democratic watchdog of the community on local government and community development”. While not all civics joined Sanco, the overwhelming majority have. Thus the leadership of the “civic movement” no longer see it as a political mass movement or a form of state (“people’s power”) but as a “watchdog”, that is an “interest group” reflecting the aspirations of a narrow constituency defined by the division of labour (urban communities).

The first point to make in this context is that civics – as indeed all other popular organisations – systematically surrendered the plane of territorial politics to the ANC at its unbanning. This surrender was expressed ideologically through the acceptance of all in “the National Liberation Movement” of the organisational “leadership” (that is, dominance) of the ANC in the “National Democratic Revolution”. In other words, it was overwhelmingly agreed by all “mass formations” that now that the ANC was unbanned, it alone was to concern itself with “national politics”. All existing organisations which had taken a political role were now to drop such a role in favour of the ANC. While the trade unions and civics now relegated themselves to their sectional interests, the UDF was disbanded, and the South African Youth Congress and the Federation of South African Women disbanded and reconstituted themselves as the ANC Youth and Women’s Leagues respectively. As a result, the youth have disappeared entirely from the political scene as an independent organised force, while women’s organisations are now clearly elite controlled (for example the so-called “National Women’s Coalition” made up of leading figures from the main political parties).

In so far as the civics were concerned, the question was: should they retain organisational independence or should they be collapsed into ANC branches? But to retain organisational independence, it was held, they were required to exit from politics. In other words, having conceded the monopoly of politics to the ANC, civics were forced (or forced themselves) into a position that if they were to retain independence, they should withdraw from politics altogether! There was never any question of them retaining a political role distinct from the ANC (that is popular politics). After a short debate in which some (a minority in the ANC/SACP, represented by N’imande and Sikhosana) argued that the political role of the civics should be maintained as they were the future bases of a people’s state and thus should become ANC branches/state structures (that is “soviets” of some form!), the majority view prevailed that civics should not be collapsed into ANC branches, but should continue to represent residents irrespective of party-political affiliation. At the same time, the ANC was adamantly maintaining that it alone should be seen as the “leading organisation” (“vanguard”) of the “broad liberation movement” and that all other organisations within this movement should recognise the primacy of the ANC in so far as political questions were concerned. There is also evidence to suggest that the ANC feared losing popular support to the civics if no clear division of labour between them was agreed. The compromise which was eventually worked out, and which became the dominant viewpoint, was one in which the ANC would have the sole monopoly of politics while civics would restrict themselves to an independent (party-political) role. This compromise was made substantially easier by the fact that the majority of leaders in the civic movement were ANC supporters anyway. It is this dominant perspective, with all its contradictions, which is expressed by a civic leader as follows:

“The basic role of the civics is not changed in my view. This role is building people’s power and it is something that must play itself out in civil society … Although the civics, within the UDF, were dominated mainly by the concerns of civil society the front’s overall role was largely political. Pulling the civic movement clear of the political net is not easy – and overlaps of personnel make that very clear.”

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The question does not seem to have been asked as to how “people’s power”, a supremely political project, could be secured by civics if they were to be “pulled clear of the political net”! At the same time, it was clearly appreciated that the dangers of civics becoming bureaucratised or turning into the “conveyor belts [sic] of the ruling party” could easily lead to statisation. In addition to arguing in favour of a distancing from the leading party, this dominant position also resolved that they should distance themselves from the local state and “not attempt to take over local government”. This was justified in terms of the same arguments, but is probably more accurately explained by the fact that the nature of local government was the subject of negotiations at the territorial level, along with the nature of the central state. In fact, the comment by the civic leader cited above accurately expressed a real political contradiction between popular politics, which civics had incarnated, and the emerging dominance of state politics, which required the “depoliticisation” of civics if these were to remain independent of the ANC (as they rightly insisted on being). It is noteworthy that the same debates did not surface as forcefully with respect to the youth and women’s movements. These were organisationally much weaker than the civics and allowed themselves to be “swallowed up” by the ANC.

Currently, a new contradiction has arisen between the “civil society role” and the “state role” of civics. This contradiction, which is a product of state-centred politics, is as yet unresolved because while civics are said to be “watchdogs” for the community on the one hand, their work is also being pushed more and more towards that of “development” on the other. While the idea behind their “development role” is to replace top-down planning with “community participation”, the focus has been on “development through negotiation” as opposed to mass popular struggles for self-help. At the same time report-backs and other measures to ensure accountability have fallen into disuse, while donor funds for “training” and other ostensibly technical programmes have “depoliticised” the role of civics even further and have bolstered the spurious view of these organisations as politically neutral. This supposed neutrality, in fact, leaves them open to becoming state organisations through another route, whether as development institutions at the bottom of the ladder and/or as adjuncts of the state, incorporated into a corporatist structure. The events which unfolded on the unbanning of the ANC are also expressed more or less clearly by activists organising in some rural areas in a manner which is of wider significance, thus:

“During the days of the UDF, it was easy for people to understand the struggle. Activity such as stay-aways, barricading, etc, involved people on the ground and made sense to them. When it came to [territorial] politics, people lost interest … When we started, our struggle involved activity, but during the period of the unbanning, people had to go deeper into politics and they lost interest. They no longer wanted to participate … After the unbanning, there was a lot of confusion among the civic organisations because the programme of the ANC and UDF was not the same … The UDF had encouraged grassroots activity. Even football clubs had a voice in the UDF. The ANC structure and understanding was different as civic structures were not high on the ANC agenda and the civic momentum during the UDF period could not be taken forward. The disappearance of the UDF crippled civic organisations because the ANC was now looking strictly to political issues and not looking to civic related issues and this weakened them.”

The consequences of this process were rather predictable. Because the link between local and territorial politics, which the UDF had successfully managed to enable, was broken, erstwhile organisations of “people’s power” collapsed. A report in the ANC-aligned New Nation newspaper, which reflected the dominant view among state-nationalists of the role of “popular organisations” in the post-apartheid period, proclaimed soon after the April 1994 territorial elections: “Except for some of the more centrally located urban settlements, civic organisations are either poorly organised or completely non-existent. And even when they do exist, few have been able to revive street and block committees, which would serve as the ideal forums through which [the government could] consult communities about their [development] needs.”

The transformation of popular politics from 1990 was not only expressed in the debates surrounding the role of civics, it was also obvious in the changed role of “mass mobilisation”. It became more and more obvious that such mobilisation was now initiated and directed solely “from above” by leading members of the ANC hierarchy, and seen as a measure to “put pressure” on the negotiating partner, the National Party and the state. It was no longer part of a process of “empowerment”. So that when the ANC declared 1991 “The year of mass action for the transfer of power to the people”, such action was designed to force the government to meet territorial demands such as “the immediate release of political prisoners … and the unconditional return of exiles, the dismantling of bantustans, an end to violence against the people, the immediate repeal of all repressive legislation, the establishment of an interim government and Constituent Assembly”.

In fact, one of the main differences between the “left radicals” and the more “moderate nationalists” within the ANC seems to have been the role which such mobilisation was to play in the transition process. This is brought out clearly in a frank review by Jeremy Cronin, one of the main theorists of the South African Communist Party (SACP). He distinguishes between three different “strategic outlooks” characterising liberation politics: “the boat, the tap and the Leipzig way”. The first position was one where democratisation was seen as resulting from a negotiated pact between elites which deliver their constituencies. Mass action was perceived as “rocking the boat”. The second position was one where “mass action” was to be turned on and off like a tap. He comments, quite correctly, that “struggle in strategy two is not about the self-empowerment of the working masses. Instead, struggle is rather more narrowly seen as empowering the negotiators so that they can bestow upon the people their liberation”. It is hinted, although never openly stated, that this was the dominant position within the ANC which was associated with Mandela himself.

The third “strategic outlook”, according to Cronin, was “the Leipzig way” or the position according to which “the people transfer power to themselves in a revolutionary moment” of insurrection as in Eastern Europe in 1989. He argues – also quite correctly – that such a perception is also in essence elitist, apart from being impracticable in the South African case, so that it ultimately reduced itself to the “tap” position. The author frankly acknowledged that “all three have a tendency to fall into one or another version of statism”. These words proved prophetic. An attempt to “turn on the tap” on 7 September 1992 outside the Ciskei – as part of the bid to remove Gqozo, the local Bantustan leader, from office through the mobilisation of “mass action” – resulted in 28 deaths and over 200 injured in what became known as the “Bisho massacre”. More long-term effects were the end of “mass action” as a tactic, as the ANC dropped it like a hot potato, and the final demise of the “left statists” as a meaningful force within the ANC. This not only showed that “mass action” had by that time little popular content other than providing canon fodder for the state’s bullets, but it also allowed the right-wing in the ANC to present the choice facing the political movement as being between peaceful transition, which was equated with negotiations, and the escalation of violence, including mass action. This comes across very clearly in the ANC document Negotiations: a strategic perspective (ANC 1992), which provided, following on from Joe Slovo’s theorisation of the famous “Sunset clauses”, the rationale for entering into a government of “national unity” with the National Party.

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It must be recalled that state and Inkatha violence was being systematically unleashed on township residents during the period leading to the elections, and that the ANC was powerless to stop it. Even though the formation of “self-defence units” (SDUs) was originally encouraged by the ANC, these were ordered to disband in 1994 as a quid pro quo in the disarming of Inkatha and all “private armies”. The following highly informative newspaper reports, which showed that not everyone concurred with the disbanding of SDUs, appeared in 1994, immediately after the territorial elections:

“While self-protection is an inalienable right to any person, this has to be done within the existing laws of the country. We also accept that the SDUs came about under special circumstances – the time when police were refusing to apprehend known vigilantes … The Sanco (South African National Civics Organisation) activist said the time had come for the weapons of both the SDUs and other private armies [sic!] including the right-wing groups, to be handed to the authorities of the democratic government for safe-keeping.” (New Nation, 13 May 1994)

Gunmen armed with AK47 rifles executed 12 residents in Thokoza on the East Rand on Friday night just three days after South Africa’s first democratically elected State President, Nelson Mandela, was inaugurated. The massacre is the first since the elections. (New Nation, 15 May 1994)

Although the SDUs have been at the centre of controversy, residents described their role as vital – especially at the height of unrest in the township. South African National Defence Force spokesperson Colonel Chris du Toit said initial inquiries indicated [that] “since the ANC ordered [sic!] the units to cease operating there has been evidence of in-fighting”. (New Nation, 20 May 1994).

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