A Mass-Driven Transformation by Jeremy Cronin
A Mass-Driven

Jeremy Cronin analyzes the underlying dynamics of the South
African transition.

     A South African Students Congress militant: "At the
national political level, the advent of the negotiations has
seen a continuous marginalization of the masses of our
people. Instead of playing a central role in shaping the
direction the struggle takes in the era of negotiations, the
masses found themselves sidelined." --from an unpublished
discussion document, May 1994

     Mac Maharaj, leading ANC negotiator and now Minister of
Transport: "We are on the threshold of achieving our
lifetime's objectives...We have put national unity and
reconciliation on the forefront of the first
government...Those achievements are what the people wanted
and what the people gave their lives for." --The Star, 1 May

     The very substantial election victory of the ANC-led
alliance in South Africa at the end of April was an
important moment in a complex transition process. But it
was, clearly, neither the beginning nor the end of that
process. Many struggles to overcome the legacy of apartheid
still lie ahead. To wage those struggles it is important to
understand what has happened over the last four years. This
is particularly important for the South African left and
democratic forces, because, despite the euphoria of the
election victory, there is simultaneously in the ranks of
hundreds of thousands of militants a substantial
     Our real successes as a liberation movement are
obscured by the fact that the way in which they have been
won does not square with our traditional Marxist-Leninist
(insurrectionary) and national liberation (handing over of
power) paradigms. As a result, overstatement of our
achievements (see the fairly typical quotation from Maharaj
above) coexists with considerable skepticism (see the
equally typical SASCO militant quotation). Unless we
understand analytically and strategically what we have
actually done, we are liable not to understand how to carry
the struggle forward.
     Let's go back four years. In a major policy speech on
February 2 1990, F.W. de Klerk announced the unbanning of
the ANC, the SACP and the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress). The
speech opened up the new negotiations terrain and it
signalled the strategic defeat of the apartheid regime's
project of smashing the national liberation movement.
However, if from the national liberation side we had
strategically defeated the apartheid project, we had
certainly not physically defeated our opponent. The broad
liberation movement had gone from strength to strength in
the course of ongoing semi-insurrectionary struggles
throughout the 1980s. But the regime's security forces
retained a relative monopoly on armed power. Our own
guerrilla forces had never carried the armed struggle much
beyond a mobilizing, armed propaganda phase. Our real
strength lay in a broad sweep of social and community based
movements (trade unions, township based civics, youth,
women, student, progressive religious, rural and many other
formations) mostly within the broad umbrella of the
ANC/SACP/COSATU alliance. The situation in the southern
African frontline and indeed globally had become less
favorable to our liberation movement through the 1980s.
While the apartheid regime could continue to rule, it could
no longer govern. On the other hand, the prospect of a
popular insurrectionary seizure of power, to which the
SACP's 1989 programme was committed, remained relatively
remote. The decade of 1990s opened up with a situation in
South Africa aptly captured by Gramsci's phrase: "a state of
reciprocal siege".
     De Klerk embarked on his new course with a relatively
clear strategy, informed by the neoliberal "transition to
democracy" paradigm, a paradigm for "managing" transitions
away from "authoritarian" regimes towards some kind of
democracy. This paradigm, based on comparative studies of
transitions in southern Europe, Latin America and now
eastern Europe, coincides with shifts in imperialist
strategic policies, accompanied by the increasing
globalization of the capitalist economic system, growing
dominance of financial institutions, the end of the Cold War
and, of course, mass struggles for greater democracy and
social justice in many parts of the world.
     De Klerk's objective was to engage the ANC in a
relatively protracted, elite negotiations process. He hoped,
in the process, to consolidate a new non-racial political
center, with himself at the center. In all of these
aspirations he was encouraged and influenced by the major
imperialist powers. For De Klerk and the imperialists the
South African situation presented, however, certain complex
challenges. They based their strategies on transitions to
multi-party democracy in which they had done relatively well
(the Philippines or Nicaragua, for instance). But, in the
South African case, the transition is not just a
democratization process but also a decolonization process.
This reality, and the particular history of South Africa,
presented a dilemma. There was no obvious, third force Cory
Aquino or Violeta Chamorro. The most likely candidate was De
Klerk himself, but he had the inescapable disadvantage, in
the South Africa reality, of being a white male. In the
1970s liberal capital in South Africa and internationally
had tried to construct Buthelezi into a black liberal, but
the attempt had failed largely because of Buthelezi's own
brutal reliance on a Bantustan base. In the absence of
alternatives a great deal of energy has gone over the last
four years into building De Klerk into a Cory.
     But strategically, our opponents also sought to broaden
the center with Buthelezi's Inkatha and a "tamed" ANC. This
meant trying to transform a more or less regionalist and
ethnic Inkatha into a national political party; and the
moderation of the ANC by separating ANC leadership from
their one major source of strength, their mass base. Quite
quickly, these different threads of our opponents' strategy
were woven together.
     In August 1990 the ANC announced, as a gesture of good
faith in the negotiation process, the suspension of the
armed struggle. Within days of the announcement, Inkatha
declared its transformation into a national political party,
and this coincided with a dramatic upsurge in political
violence in the industrial heartland of South Africa, in the
PWV region centered on Johannesburg. The low-scale war that
had been raging between ANC and Inkatha-supporting Zulu-
speakers in Natal for several years, was now exported to the
Transvaal. Inkatha war-lord structures, trained and armed by
South African Police and Defence Force intelligence and
special operation networks, used migrant worker hostels in
the PWV as launching pads for the destabilization agenda.
For Inkatha, the violence projected it as a national force.
For the regime, the violence destabilized ANC mass bases and
it could be projected as "black on black" violence,
senseless tribal killings, "proof" that Africans are unfit
to govern themselves. This is, of course, a time-honored
strategy of colonial and neocolonial powers (US secretary of
state John Foster Dulles once said, in the 1950s, that the
best way to maintain US power in the Pacific was "to let
Asians fight Asians").
     The ANC-alliance was, at first, organizationally and
strategically ill-prepared for this two-track strategy. De
Klerk was simultaneously talking to us, and kicking us under
the table. All of this was happening at a time when we were
involved in the complex process of forging some kind of
unity out of an ANC emerging from jail, the underground, an
often distant and lengthy exile, and from the mass struggles
of the 1970s and '80s. There were disjunctures in age
(Mandela was born in 1918, ANC secretary general Ramaphosa
in 1952) and in political culture. Some had been soldiers or
diplomats for decades, others, usually thirty years younger,
had been the core cadreship of social movements. Most of the
senior leadership (old and young) were engaged in
negotiations, telling our constituency to be patient. As
negotiations dragged on, and appeared to be more and more
complex and inaccessible, our increasingly angry and
confused mass base experienced no change. Unemployment was
rising, all the chronic social and economic problems
persisted and, worst of all, the political violence was
spiralling while the ANC (inexplicably in the view of much
of our base) had suspended the armed struggle. Attempts by
ANC negotiators to explain the negotiations to the base were
undermined by the violence itself, which made routine
organizational meetings difficult to hold in many
localities. The violence, very deliberately, assumed two
forms: the general destabilization and demoralization of ANC
strongholds through random mass terror (like the mass
killings on trains and mini-buses), and targeted
assassination of second and third layer cadres -- the
critical organizational connection between national
leadership and the base.
     Organizational and strategic weaknesses from the ANC
side ensured that, for the first two years, De Klerk
generally held the strategic initiative within the
negotiation process. Internationally, playing on Western
racial stereotypes, De Klerk was able to project himself as
an honest broker, above the sordid ANC-Inkatha squabble.
     In the course of 1992, however, matters began to
change. By the beginning of the year the first round of
multi-party negotiations (CODESA) had become deadlocked. De
Klerk was determined to negotiate a final, power-sharing
constitution in this non-representative multi-party forum.
He demanded a permanent power-sharing constitution which
would guarantee equal cabinet representation to the three
largest parties and a troika (obviously he had in mind
Mandela, De Klerk and Buthelezi) of rotating presidents! The
ANC alliance consistently argued for a two-stage process -
multi-party negotiations to negotiate transitional
arrangements, followed by elections for a Constituent
     In the face of this deadlock, and growing impatience
within the ANC mass constituency, the ANC alliance launched
a protracted campaign of mass actions beginning on June 16
1992. The central demands of the campaign were for an
elected Constituent Assembly, and for effective measures
against the spiralling violence. The incumbent government
and particularly its security and intelligence networks
planned to turn the mass action campaign against us, using
the campaign as a means for further prolonging the
transitional process, thus buying time to transform a whites
only National Party into a more electorally feasible non-
racial, center-right formation. The disruptions of the mass
campaign would be used as a cover to intensify the violence,
and to blame it on the ANC's campaign itself. In this way,
De Klerk would try to make more inroads into a black
constituency wearied by continuous violence and disruption,
recruiting this constituency to the center-right National
Party in the name of law and order.
     All of these cards were played in the first days of the
1992 mass action campaign. Unfortunately for De Klerk the
cards were played far too transparently, and too cynically.
The ANC alliance launched its campaign on June 16. On the
night of June 17 hundreds of armed Inkatha hostel-dwellers
were escorted by police armored vehicles to an ANC squatter
community in Boipatong, where for three hours the Inkatha
members went on a rampage through the squatter shacks. At
least 39 people, including an infant and a pregnant woman,
were slaughtered. Several attempts were made to alert the
police in the course of these events -- mysteriously they
were not available. In a subsequent judicial investigation
the relevant page of the log-book of the nearby police
station was found to have been torn out, and the standard
recording of all police radio communications in the same
station was found to have been "inadvertently" recorded over
and indecipherable.
     On the morning of June 18, the first official reaction
to the massacre came from the SA Police spokesperson,
Captain Craig Kotze, who told an incredulous South Africa
and world that the massacre "was caused by the ANC's mass
action campaign". On the same day, the National Party
announced a major recruitment drive into black areas. On
June 20, De Klerk made an unannounced "sympathy" visit to
Boipatong. Instead of receiving a hero's welcome as he had
expected, De Klerk, doing his best to look like Cory Aquino,
was surrounded by angry squatter camp inhabitants and his
convoy was stoned. In the resulting fracas a further three
Boipatong inhabitants were shot dead by the police. The
wheels of De Klerk's strategy were beginning to come off.
     The apartheid regime had used "low intensity warfare"
tactics with devastating effect in remote parts of Angola
and Mozambique, which were far out of reach of the Western
media. The inhabitants of Boipatong, however, were less than
one hour away from the largest media contingent on the
African continent, and on the morning of June 18 told the
story of the massacre via CNN and Reuters to the global
village. Beyond that, there was a two-day regional general
strike in response.
     Increasingly, the violence, and the growing perception
that elements of De Klerk's security forces were implicated,
set up contradictions within the ruling bloc itself. These
contradictions were personified in John Hall, later
chairperson of the National Peace Committee, and a senior
executive in the Barlow Rand group of companies. Barlow Rand
companies are, amongst other things, involved in the
armaments industry and made millions out of the war in
Angola and Namibia. John Hall never expressed any qualms
about the apartheid destabilization of southern Africa. But
Hall, and other captains of industry, increasingly spoke out
against the violence in South Africa. Under the aegis of the
Peace Committee judicial investigations were set up, which
began, to uncover state involvement in the supposed "black-
on-black" violence.
     Mid-June 1992 was to prove a decisive turning point in
the negotiations process. In the following two months the
ANC's mass action campaign moved into full gear. Thousands
of actions took place, including the occupation of city and
town centers, and of government buildings, mass marches and
general strikes. Although the liberal press in our country
portrayed this period as a bleak moment in which the
negotiations process was stalled, the reality was very
different. In many respects, the mass action campaign
brought the negotiations process down to the base: not only
were thousands of communities taking up the national
negotiation demands, but they were also using their actions
to advance local demands. There were probably more
negotiations in the June-August 1992 period than at any
other time in our history. Typically, in rural areas for
instance, a march from the township into the "white" town,
or the occupation of an administrative facility, would raise
the main national negotiating demands, but also local
concerns: the right to use town venues for meetings, a
demand for the transfer of a particularly notorious police
officer, and so forth. These were often not one-off
processes-- they frequently gave birth to, or revitalized
local negotiating forums (dispute resolution structures,
development forums, etc.). National negotiations had become
complex and remote, as one old man from Kathlehong township,
referring to the CODESA negotiations, expressed it: "I
thought we are to inherit the new South Africa - all of us,
including we the illiterate blacks and these stupid boers at
these factories in Alberton. But none of us understands the
debates." (April 1992)
     In the midst of the rolling mass actions of mid-1992,
in thousands of localities countrywide, communities were
claiming the terrain of negotiated transition for
     The ANC-alliance was beginning to find its strategic
feet in the new situation, combining negotiations and mass
struggle. But there was still no complete strategic clarity
on our side. Some still attached most importance to the
elite negotiations, seeing the mass involvement as, at
worst, an unnecessary interruption, or, at best, as merely
instrumental (to unblock the negotiations). On the other
hand, the mass action was still seen, particularly amongst
hundreds of thousands of grassroots activists, but also
among some leading ANC and especially SACP members, in a
largely insurrectionary perspective -- "the real struggle is
for the seizure of power, the negotiations are incidental,
at best they create space for us to marshall our own
insurrectionary forces."
     This strategic confusion characterized the fateful
September 7 march on Bisho in 1992, where Brigadier Gqozo's
Bantustan security forces killed 28 marchers and wounded
198. Equivocating in the message we conveyed to our mass
base -- between establishing a physical presence in Bisho
versus actually taking power over the town -- we tempted the
other side into believing that it could "teach us a lesson"
and still occupy the moral high ground. Following the Bisho
events, our own 1992 rolling mass action campaign faltered.
     However, by the beginning of September, the mass
campaigns had already altered the balance of forces at the
negotiating table, as the September 26 1992 Record of
Understanding, between the ANC and De Klerk's government,
was to confirm. This bilateral agreement (De Klerk had been
forced out of the multilateral negotiation framework that he
favoured) achieved two fundamental objectives. For the first
time, De Klerk agreed to the ANC alliance two-stage process
with elections for a Constituent Assembly. He also agreed,
at least on paper, to take a tougher stand on those hostels
that had become armed bases for destabilization. The latter
commitment and the fact that De Klerk had entered this
accord bilaterally angered Buthelezi, and effectively broke
the back of the NP-IFP strategic alliance. Throughout 1993
and up to the April 1994 elections, the negotiation process
was, essentially, now based on bilateral agreements which
were then taken to the multi-party forum more or less for
     These breakthroughs towards the end of 1992 coincided
with a major strategic debate inside of the ANC alliance.
The debate was partly motivated by an attempt to come to
terms with the lessons of the mass campaign, including the
Bisho massacre. But it was primarily centered around a major
intervention by SACP chairperson, Joe Slovo, entitled
"Negotiations: What room for compromise?" (The African
Communist, 3rd quarter, 1992). Slovo argued that: "We are
negotiating because towards the end of the '80s we concluded
that, as a result of its escalating crisis, the apartheid
power bloc was no longer able to continue ruling in the old
way and was genuinely seeking some break with the past. At
the same time, we were clearly not dealing with a defeated
enemy and an early revolutionary seizure of power by the
liberation movement could not be realistically posed. This
conjuncture of the balance of forces provided a classical
scenario which placed the possibility of negotiations on the
agenda...But what could we achieve in the light of the
balance of forces..? There was certainly never a prospect of
forcing the regime's unconditional surrender across the
table. It follows that the negotiating table is neither the
sole terrain of the struggle for power nor the place where
it will reach its culminating point."
     On the basis of this argument, Slovo proposed certain
"principled compromises" -- in particular, in exchange for
the agreement on an elected constituent assembly, we should
agree to a transitional power-sharing arrangement, in which
parties scoring over a certain percentage would be
proportionately represented in a transitional cabinet.
Slovo's package of proposals were eventually endorsed by the
ANC National Executive Committee in February 1993. Most
importantly the Slovo scenario also became the framework of
the entire settlement which we now have in place. The Slovo
proposals, however, touched off a major debate within the
ANC alliance, with many seeing in them a betrayal of our
commitment to a "seizure of power" (in the SACP Marxist-
Leninist traditions), or a full "transfer of power" (in the
African liberation movement tradition).
     It is interesting, however, to revisit Slovo's
intervention and particularly the passages quoted above.
While I do not disagree with the main tactical point Slovo
was trying to make, I think there is still, ironically, a
hint of the old seizure of power paradigm, of a "culminating
point" in his own argument. Slovo makes room for his
proposed negotiation compromises by deferring "the decisive
moment" (of "unconditional surrender"?). He did not,
therefore, think through the fuller strategic implications
of his position, which is perhaps also why he did not, in
this extremely influential paper, begin to develop a wider
strategy for the transition, beyond a negotiations strategy.
     By the first quarter of 1993, then, most of the
building blocks for the eventual settlement were in place.
But there were elements within De Klerk's cabinet and in his
security forces who still hankered after their original
strategy. There were attempts to woo back Inkatha, at the
expense of the bilateral arrangement with the ANC. At the
beginning of April 1993 there was still no agreement on an
election date. Once more, it was mass action that was to
unblock the process.
     The immediate catalyst for the next round of mass
action was a tragedy. Chris Hani, SACP general secretary and
easily the most popular politician in South Africa after
Mandela, was assassinated on April 10 1993. The intention of
the extreme right-wing assassins was to derail the whole
negotiation process. And, indeed, the assassination produced
a national crisis. Mass anger and a series of mass actions
swept the country. In the ten days after the slaying there
were the two largest general strikes in our country's
history, involving on both occasions over 4 million workers
and hundreds of thousands of students and others. The
principal demand of these actions was for an unambiguous
agreement on an election date. A very wide range of South
Africans, including big business, were alarmed by the crisis
and the National Party agreed within weeks to the April 1994
election date.
     But, once more, this round of mass mobilization was not
confined to the broad national demands. This was
particularly the case in the Eastern Transvaal where a 19-
day (May 17-June 5) consumer boycott of white shops was
launched. An Eastern Transvaal regional ANC/SACP/COSATU
tripartite assessment of the campaign is worth quoting at
some length:
     "The boycott was called in the wake of the
assassination of comrade Chris Hani. The main issues of the
boycott were: to register the anger of hundreds of thousands
of people in the region at comrade Chris's slaying; an early
announcement of an election date and a speedy transition to
     "Originally, the alliance had planned to target the
businesses of extreme right-wingers in the white community.
The object was to isolate the most reactionary forces.
However, we found we lacked information about the white
community. We didn't know who was who. This, in itself,
reflects the situation in the Eastern Transvaal, where
baasskap has remained deeply entrenched. There has been
virtually no engagement, no talking between the townships
and the white communities. The boycott has begun to reverse
this. Right from the start, the boycott organizers kept
their door open. They were always prepared to engage
business-people and local authorities in discussion. By the
second week the white community was calling for meetings in
dozens of localities.
     "The boycott organizers took the decision to engage
organized business, the provincial authorities and the
security forces on a regional basis. On June 5, the
ANC/SACP/COSATU alliance met with SACOB, the Sakekamer, the
Afrikaans Handelsinstituut, Eskom, the Transvaal Provincial
Administration, the Regional Services Council, and the SADF
and SAP.
     "The meeting was a major breakthrough. A joint
statement agreed on: joint action to ensure a speedy
transition to democracy; security forces and government to
take firm action against security force members and others
interfering with free political activity; a joint tripartite
alliance/SADF delegation to verify the de-electrification of
the SA/Mozambique border fence... the phasing out of the
inhumane bucket system, still prevalent in a number of
townships in the region. This system is to be replaced with
flushing toilets. Joint alliance and RSC subcommittees will
be established to oversee this process; reactivating steps
to establish a Regional Economic Forum. It has also been
agreed that review meetings will occur every 60 days to
assess progress in all these areas." (published in
Umsebenzi, Vol.9, No.2, 1993).
     Obviously, not all agreements actually get implemented
in practice. When the pressure is lifted, there is a
dragging of feet from the other side. Our popular
structures, for their part, often lack the capacity to
follow through on negotiation victories. Nevertheless, the
above assessment from the Eastern Transvaal best captures, I
believe, the reality of the transition process in which we
have been involved. It points the way forward to the ongoing
struggles to deepen democracy, to overcome the legacy of
apartheid, and to empower working people.
     To carry our momentum forward, beyond the elections,
neither our old insurrectionary/transfer of power paradigms,
nor the elite-driven transition approach are going to be
helpful. Our experience of the transition over the last four
years underlines the need for an ongoing process of mass-
driven structural reforms at all levels of our society.
     Broadly speaking, this is precisely the direction in
which the ANC programme for governance (Reconstruction and
Development Programme -RDP) is pointing, with its commitment
to "a people-driven process": "Development is not about the
delivery of goods to a passive citizenry. It is about active
involvement and growing empowerment. In taking this approach
we are building on the many forums, peace structures and
negotiations that our people are involved in throughout the
     The RDP also links reconstruction and development to
the deepening of democracy: "Thoroughgoing democratization
of our society is...absolutely integral to the whole RDP.
The RDP requires fundamental changes in the way that policy
is made and programmes are implemented. Above all, the
people affected must participate in decision-making.
Democratization must begin to transform both the state and
civil society. Democracy is not confined to periodic
elections. It is, rather, an active process enabling
everyone to contribute to reconstruction and development."
     The April election has, once more, altered the relative
balance of forces in our country. It has considerably
strengthened the ANC-alliance. In the government of national
unity the ANC is dominant (these ANC cabinet minsters
include three communist ministers and one deputy minister).
The ANC is also strong in the 400-seat National Assembly
(with over 60 percent of the deputies, including 49
communists). In the 90-seat senate the ANC has exactly two-
thirds (60) of the senators. In most of the nine provincial
assemblies there are also large ANC majorities. But the
balance of forces remains complex, the security forces, the
civil service, the control and ownership of the economy, the
judiciary - in all of these areas, we are inheriting a
white-minority and capitalist legacy. Protracted
transformation struggles lie ahead.
     In the past we tended to conceptualize change as a
struggle to capture the commanding heights, to nationalize
ownership and control. We will be more faithful to the
fundamentals of our national liberation and socialist
heritage, and more useful to the actual tasks at hand, if we
begin to think, as the Reconstruction and Development
Programme starts to think, of the main task as being about a
process of democratizing power. All power.