Transition of an Unexpected Type by Raymond Suttner
Transition of an
Unexpected Type

Raymond Suttner details the prospects for South Africa after
the April 1994 elections.

     Revolutionaries and progressives throughout the world
are watching with great interest the unfolding transition in
South Africa. Battered by numerous disappointments and
setbacks, many no doubt observe with hope but also with
     The South African process is unfolding at precisely the
moment when the left worldwide is in disarray, when all
models have been cast into doubt.
     The changed conjuncture that led to the present
situation in our country coincided with the changed
international balance of forces. This saw the collapse of
the "organized socialist system" and the widespread
questioning of the possibility of any order other than
capitalism, in particular a rampant aggressive
Thatcherite/Reaganite version.
     The South African liberation movement, Communist and
non-Communist alike, has been confronted by this changed
conjuncture to which it had to respond with new strategies
and tactics. It was also one of many national liberation
movements gripped by a particular statist notion of change.
The conception of transition and transformation presupposed
quick results of a substantial nature upon taking political
office. (It should be noted, however, that the trade union
movement, community organizations such as the civics and
certain other internally-based structures had already
started to move away from this approach.)
     During the four years of negotiations following the
unbanning of the ANC, the complex reality of power relations
and the inadequacy of simple notions of "transfer of power"
have led to participation in a variety of negotiation forums
as well as continued struggles. (See the debate in The
African Communist, 3rd and 4th quarter, 1993.)
     The particular mode of transition through elections and
a Government of National Unity (GNU) is only one aspect of a
change in power relations different from that previously
envisaged by the liberation movement. There is not really
consensus over all its implications, and thus far, there has
been remarkably little discussion and agreement over broad
strategy. Insofar as there may be agreement it is still not
widely diffused amongst the democratic forces and the
leadership itself.
     What this means is that much of our membership has
emerged from an insurrectionary period without fully
adapting to a new terrain requiring different modes of
struggle and thinking. The fact that the leadership have not
articulated a changed perspective with one voice and that
some interpretations lead to suspicions of unwarranted
compromise has made the necessary change of strategy even
more difficult.
     The past four years have seen a pattern of ex-post
facto analysis of actions already taken, rather than the
development of a broad approach within which actors have
conducted themselves. From the earliest days of the return
of the exiled ANC leadership, ad hoc decisions were taken
which were later seen to have substantial strategic
implications. The impact of these decisions was only
subsequently and occasionally analyzed.
     Despite these weaknesses, the April 1994 elections
constituted a decisive moment in the process of liberation
of South Africa. It is the practice of some brands of
thinking to see moments not as moments but as culminations
of processes. Just as the former regime was wont to describe
the February 1990 freeing of Nelson Mandela and the
unbanning of the liberation movements as the end of struggle
and to one-sidedly depict the road ahead as one of
negotiations, there are some who see the elections as having
liberated the National Party (NP) from its racist past and
the ANC from mass struggle. There are many in the ANC who
also speak of the elections having been the day of
liberation, implying that liberation was completed on that
     It is important to understand the decisive and
qualitative nature of the break which the elections victory
represents. Simultaneously it is equally important to
appreciate that the break also represents a phase in an
ongoing process -- a process which will reach different
destinations depending on our evaluation of the moment and
our conceptions of its development towards its goal.
     South Africa's first democratic election had many
remarkable features. As mentioned in an earlier article
(CrossRoads, April 1994), negotiations were continuing well
into the election campaign. Only six days before polling,
one of the main reactionary forces, the Inkatha Freedom
Party (IFP), decided to participate in the elections. It
appears that the IFP turnaround may have been due to an
illegal deal between IFP head Mangosuthu Buthelezi and then-
President F.W. de Klerk, whereby large tracts of land in the
KwaZulu/Natal area was transferred to the control of the
Zulu King to be administered under customary land tenure.
Apart from strengthening the hand of the IFP as a counter-
force to the central government, this form of tenure allows
for extensive patronage and also denies rights to women.
     In addition, the weeks preceding the elections were
marked by vicious bombings and widespread violence in
general. Even in a country accustomed to violence, the
magnitude of the explosions was staggering. Windows of
offices (including ANC Headquarters in Johannesburg)
hundreds of yards from one car bomb were shattered only a
few days before the election. Much of the city was cordoned
off and an atmosphere of fear reigned amongst large sections
of the population.
     Rumors abounded. Many whites started to panic and
stocked up on canned foods. So extensive was this buying,
that many items could not be supplied for some weeks. At an
ANC meeting, domestic workers told of "madams" (their
employers) saying that after the elections there would be
three weeks of war and that power supplies would be cut.
They were advised to stock up on non-perishable food.
     In the eyes of many whites, the bombings were a variant
of the prelude to the end of the world -- in this case the
end of the apartheid world. Since the idea of equality
represented the unknown, many whites -- instead of adjusting
psychologically -- prepared themselves with that which was
known and could be purchased in abundance: material goods.
     The run-up to elections also saw armed attacks on ANC
regional and local offices as well as the Headquarters in
Johannesburg. In the latter case, guards retaliated on IFP
marchers storming the building with firepower that caused
heavy casualties on the side of the attackers.
     In the upsurge leading to democratic rule two
bantustans, Bophuthatswana and Ciskei, collapsed. In the
case of the former, white extreme right-wing forces from the
AWB (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) sought to rescue the
petty dictator, Lucas Mangope, only to be driven out by the
formerly puppet armed forces of the now-dissolving
     That the AWB army of overweight but dangerous fascists
sustained fatal losses was important. Many will think twice
about going on future escapades if the possibility of their
deaths, and not merely that of blacks, could await them.
     The ANC scored a decisive election victory, winning
62.7 percent of the national vote, (more than 40 percent
above their nearest rival, the former ruling National Party)
and victory in seven out of nine provinces. But the election
was marked by various obstacles and fraudulent practices
that indicate that this victory may well have been greater.
     In Natal, where the result is being contested, the IFP
set up an estimated 30 pirate voting stations. According to
the ANC, the results from these stations showed a consistent
pattern of huge IFP votes plus a smattering of votes for
other parties. Policing of the election in the province
remained under the control of the KwaZulu Police --
controlled by Buthelezi -- and this power was used to drive
ANC supporters and agents out of polling stations. There are
also numerous reports of children as young as ten having
cast their vote in the region.
     The ANC lost to the NP in the Western Cape, partly
because of subjective weaknesses, but also because of a
scurrilous racist campaign aimed at pitting the colored
majority against Africans. The NP depicted the ANC policy of
affirmative action as driving coloreds out of jobs to make
room for Africans.
     One thing that became clear in the course of the
election was that the size of the African national
electorate had been underestimated. Whereas non-Africans had
been counted individually in the most recent census, the
black population had only been estimated through aerial
     The issuing of identity documents necessary to vote
remained almost entirely the prerogative of the government
Department of Home Affairs, which did much to frustrate the
ability of Africans to vote. In addition, delivery of ballot
papers, generally in abundance in the white areas, often did
not arrive for the first two days of polling in the distant
areas populated entirely by Africans. There appears to have
been both miscalculation and a degree of sabotage/fraud-
allegedly linked to Home Affairs officials.
     People, however, queued -- sometimes for two days -- to
cast their vote. The determination of people to wait, no
matter how long, testified to the validity of platitudes
about people's thirst for freedom. At the same time, there
is no doubt that some were not able to overcome the
logistical difficulties placed in the way of their voting.
     The ANC comes to power or takes office within a
government of national unity (GNU), comprising a number of
parties that have been responsible for atrocities against
the ANC itself, killing many of its leaders and the masses
in general. Some of these atrocities are continuing. The GNU
results from the interim constitution agreed upon during
negotiations, which entitles any party scoring more than
five percent of the vote to representation in the cabinet.
     The GNU is thus a highly contradictory unity in that a
government pledged to transformation and democratization
combines with elements that have until the elections been in
the opposite camp. Of the 400 National Assembly seats, the
ANC holds 252, the NP, 82, and the IFP, 43. The remaining 23
seats are shared among the Freedom Front, the Democratic
Party, the Pan African Congress and the African Christian
Democratic Party.
     During the first parliamentary debates, the NP and IFP
together with all the other parties committed themselves,
subject to various reservations, to the implementation of
the ANC's Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP). (See
excerpts, page xx). Many business sectors and the public in
general are also favorably disposed towards the RDP,
although they worry about its cost, in particular the
possibility of shifting the tax burden onto the wealthy.
     However, conflicting views are likely to emerge over
time as the program is implemented by both ANC and non-ANC
ministers, who are not as enthusiastic about implementation,
but hold portfolios that are key to the RDP. For example,
the Ministry of Mineral and Energy Affairs, which is key to
the RDP and includes electrification, has been given to Pik
Botha, former NP Foreign Minister.
     It may be that such a division of portfolios was a
necessary compromise, but it is equally crucial that any
attempts to use those posts for subversion be
counterbalanced by democratic power, in parliament
(especially through the standing committees) and through
mass organized power.
     The week of May 24-28 witnessed the first meeting of
the new, democratically elected parliament. Neither the new
members nor the old are entirely accustomed to their
surroundings. But there are already signs of possible
substantial transformation of the legislature.
     Because the ANC demanded that at least one-third of its
candidates be women, parliament as a whole is now much more
representative of the majority of the population. The ANC's
"quota" for women candidates was important in increasing the
visibility of women in the campaign and now in parliament.
Without the one-third rule, many female candidates may not
have been "discovered." However, this policy did not extend
to cabinet posts and there are relatively few women
     The gender question also impacted on the campaign as a
whole, with political parties vying to prove they would
deliver gender equality. The country has been made more
"gender sensitive" at a constitutional level, through the
adoption of a Charter for Women's Equality drawn up by a
multi-party Women's National Coalition. Although this gender
consciousness is in its embryonic stages in the country as a
whole, it is nevertheless significant and may reduce
resistance to legislative measures aimed at removing women's
     President Mandela's opening address committed the new
government to eliminating not only racial inequality, but to
a program of ending exploitation of women. Individual women
parliamentarians then eloquently elaborated on this theme by
addressing the various forms of women's oppression relating
not only to the family, but to land rights, housing rights
and numerous other aspects of personal and wider social
activity. A women's caucus of the ANC has been formed. But
the precise role of women in parliament and their relation
to forces outside of parliament as well as their impact on
government legislation has still to be elaborated.
     One of the other immediate changes is in the sounds of
parliament. Until now the official languages of the country
have been arrogantly declared to be only those of the white
oppressor -- English and Afrikaans. For the first time ever,
speakers addressed the parliament in any of the 11 now-
official languages. On the ANC's part, it was a conscious
assertion that officiality is not merely a formal right;
that people should exercise their democratic rights in
parliament or anywhere else in whatever language they
consider most comfortable.
     The people who serve as the ANC's 252 Assemblymembers
and 60-odd Senators come from all walks of life, all areas
of the country -- in fact places that do not appear on the
maps that white South Africans have drawn. In a sense their
presence in parliament is an attempt to put these people,
who live without water and electricity, without basic health
care or education, on the map as far as liberation and
transformation is concerned.
     Despite the visible changes, the South African
parliament in its present form is not automatically a
vehicle for the type of changes that are needed. It is based
on the British model and has until now taken the worst of
that system and grafted onto it a particularly undemocratic
mode of functioning.
     In essence, the previous ruling party, in power for 46
years, had perfected a system whereby the cabinet developed
legislation and the parliamentarians, the most
democratically elected people within that system, were
reduced to rubber stamps of the executive. The ANC inherits
a system whereby standing committees of parliament are part
of the process of passing laws, but where the tradition has
been for them to meet behind closed doors and make only
minor changes in laws drafted by the cabinet.
     Although the ANC MPs and Senators are members of the
same organization, we do not conceive ourselves as rubber
stamps of the cabinet. Nor do we see the process of
democratization and transformation as a matter for the
executive and legislature alone. The question we confront is
how parliament can become an active player and not merely an
echo of the executive. Paradoxically, this aim is one that
coincides with the interests of the minority parties who
would for their own reasons resist a continuation of the
system that they perfected, where parliament was reduced to
powerlessness. They would, however, be less keen on the
further innovation -- popular involvement and input into
this process
     How are the popular masses to be involved in the
process and indeed play a wider political role in the years
ahead? The masses who voted the ANC into power are not
content to be voting fodder, whose expectations are
"managed" until the 1999 elections. They will not accept,
and I am sure most of the ANC leadership does not envisage,
that their role is merely to be spectators over these years.
     Among the ideas under consideration is the development
of the standing committee system -- in some ways similar to
that adopted in the U.S. -- whereby committees are formed in
the early stages, long before legislation comes before
parliament, and these committees shadow particular
government ministries. They would be established not merely
to look at legislation drafted in the cabinet, but to be
involved in the entire functioning of the ministries
concerned. This would include the appointment of high civil
service officials, input into the drafting of legislation,
and into the general conception of the ministries' roles.
     In other words, alongside the British-inherited system
of cabinet responsibility, we would try to ensure that there
is responsibility to parliament, in the first place through
these standing committees. Once legislation is prepared it
would be placed before these standing committees, which
would meet in open session. In the first days of the new
parliament, the open session rule was adopted unanimously as
a matter of urgency by the Rules committee and is already in
     It has often been said in recent times that the ANC
takes office but not power. This phrase, seen as applicable
even if we were not in a GNU situation, refers to the fact
that the democratic forces face constraints not only within
the GNU itself. We inherit a hostile civil service,
including a possibly disloyal security force. Many centers
of power (in the economy, media, health sector, educational
establishment, etc.) crucial to democratization and
transformation, presently are antagonistic to our aims.
     Therefore, it is clear that the RDP cannot succeed
without the power of the people organized in a number of
formations. If this is correct, then the quality and
strength of popular organization becomes of crucial
     The electoral success of the ANC may provide a
deceptive view of ANC capacity, for that was organization
directed towards a single goal, overriding every other
interest that may normally have been of primary concern.
     Before the elections many of the regions of the ANC
were in crisis. The South African Communist Party (SACP) was
also organizationally weak, despite its popularity and its
relatively rapid recruitment of members. COSATU (Congress of
South African Trade Unions) was also experiencing new
difficulties consequent on large-scale retrenchments.
     The forces that comprise the broader mass democratic
movement (MDM), or the liberation movement as a whole, were
in many respects in disarray. Many sectors remain
unorganized and in others organization has collapsed. The
education sector, previously a mainstay of the democratic
movement, has been seriously weakened at a student level and
operates in a relatively uncoordinated fashion at the level
of teachers.
     The civics have become very weak, with a disjuncture
developing between the relatively new national and regional
civic structures on the one hand, and the average civic on
the ground with its street and yard committees.
     Organization on the issue of land is very weak and ANC
regions where rural areas are predominant tend to be
particularly weak. Many of these are located in the former
bantustans and this presents special organizational
     The broader questions of the relationship between the
ANC and other organizations of the broad liberation movement
and the ANC as government have not been adequately
canvassed. Nor has the relationship between the cabinet and
the parliamentary caucus and both of their relationships to
the constitutional structures of the ANC.
     Resolution of these problems is made more difficult by
deployment of almost every member of the ANC National
Executive Committee to parliament, and many of these to
cabinet, deputy ministries or civil service positions.
     Insofar as duties of government or parliament or
constitution-making demand more time than many would have
envisaged, it is not clear who will direct the process of
rebuilding the ANC's internal structures.
     Significantly, the Secretary General of the ANC, Cyril
Ramaphosa, has been elected as chairperson of the
Constitution Making Body -- a position that is likely to
demand a great deal of time.
     Without further elaboration, there is no doubt that the
ANC has to confront serious organizational issues if it is
not to die. Those who see the importance of mass empowerment
and not merely a situation where the masses are the
recipients of government largesse will have to put their
heads together to remedy this situation.
     The SACP faces a different set of problems. At an
organizational level it has not yet found a methodology or
form for absorbing its 60,000 members. It has not found a
method of political education or organization to make their
membership meaningful. Members continue to join, yet the
organization has a crisis on its hands. Whereas the ANC
inherited some of the United Democratic Front (UDF)
structures and drew on the skills of many leading Communist
Party members as well as much wealth to develop its
organizational power, the SACP has been in debt for most of
its unbanning and faces severe financial problems and a
related shortage of full-time workers. At the same time
there has been a tendency to rely on historical popularity,
the popularity of its overall image as militant,
uncompromising, and truly for the poor.
     COSATU, despite its having to replace a large body of
leaders who have been elected to parliament, is probably
organizationally better rooted than its two partners in the
Tripartite Alliance and thus better able to recover from its
present difficulties.
     The South Africa transition process cannot be neatly
parcelled within categories like revolutionary and
reformist. It has aspects that represent gradualism and
continuity, while it simultaneously has immensely
revolutionary characteristics.
     The coexistence of these features or potentialities
gives rise to contradictions, especially within the GNU.
Obviously the tendency of the reactionary forces is to
accept the process, but within an interpretation that
emphasizes continuity of what exists, including some degree
of "inevitability" of the gap between rich and poor.
     The forces of liberation are not speaking with one
voice and there are tendencies towards revolutionary
interpretations and there are those counselling courses that
could blunt such an outcome.
     The significance of the RDP, what makes it
revolutionary, especially given South Africa's history, is
that it pledges not merely that a new government will make
the masses beneficiaries of a process of transformation.
What is revolutionary is that the conception of the RDP
envisages success as only possible through the central role
of the masses.
     It is possible that the current widespread support for
the RDP amongst all sectors, many of which were previously
hostile, while basically positive, could also be based on a
concept of delivery that is less democratic and people-
driven than that conceived in the RDP itself. The RDP sees
the people as essential, as those who need redress from
oppression but also as agents in achieving this redress.
     An alternative conception would see the masses as
having expectations that must be respected but "managed."
While the RDP recognizes that all expectations cannot be met
immediately, the provision of basic necessities are
considered legitimate expectations that must be met. The
choice lies over the pace and combination of forces needed
to realize them.
     Thus, a difficult period lies ahead for South Africa's
democratic forces.
     The Tripartite Alliance of the ANC, SACP and COSATU
claims -- in its statements -- to recognize that reliance
cannot be placed on the constitutional structures of
government alone.  On the other hand, adequate steps have
not yet been taken to transform power relations to a much
broader front by the deployment of forces in the MDM under
the leadership of the ANC.
     In this coming period, the ability to bolster the
organizational mechanisms and to reinforce the leadership
bodies of the ANC and the MDM may well determine the pace
and extent to which the Reconstruction and Development
Program can be implemented.