About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Negotiations: The strategic debate

Joe Slovo's intervention, "Negotiations: What room for compromises?" (The African Communist, 3rd Quarter 1992), has started a major debate within the ranks of the national liberation movement. Indeed, the debate has broadened out well beyond the movement, and it has even been taken up internationally.

In this issue of The African Communist we print some of the interventions that have been made in the ensuing debate.

To many comrades, as well as to outside observers there are, perhaps, things which are confusing about this debate.

One issue that worries some is the spectacle of ANC and SACP leaders publicly debating with each other, sometimes in a heated, polemical way.

On this question we believe no apology or bashfulness is required. The strategic questions that are being debated affect all of our futures.

It is, surely, patronising to believe that our activists or the people at large must be fed with a predigested line from the top. The debate belongs to the people of South Africa, and not to small committees in head offices.

That does not mean, of course, that leaders should not give leadership. Nor does it mean that unity of strategic purpose is not absolutely desirable. But a false unity, a unity that is simply papered-over differences, a dead unity, a dogmatic unity is no unity at all.

But what Is the debate about?

One common version of the debate is that it is simply a debate between those in favour and those opposed to some kind of power-sharing for a limited period, defined by a "sunset clause". You are supposed to be either for or against.

But the debate is, of course, a lot more complex than this. Anyone trying to read this simple debate (for or against power-sharing) into the papers published here will indeed become confused.

One of the things that makes this debate complex is that there are a number of areas where different comrades are saying very similar things, but where there are mutual suspicions that the apparent agreements are only apparent.

Our strategic objectives

For instance, Slovo and his most outspoken critics all agree that the fundamental objectives of our struggle have not, and must not be altered.

But, while Slovo explicitly argues this, his critics believe that he and the ANC Negotiations Commission are, in practice, watering down these objectives. The critics believe that in the interests of negotiating tactics, our fundamental strategic objectives are being altered.

By contrast, those closer to Slovo, believe that it is the critics who are tending to confuse tactics and strategic goals, but this time in the other direction. The critics, they argue, are turning longer-term strategic objectives (like the complete destruction of apartheid) into immediate tactical options.

Are one or the other set of suspicions justified?

On this...THE READER MUST DECIDE.

The place of negotiations In our strategy

Both Slovo and Jordan, for instance, actually say almost identical things on the place of negotiations within our overall strategy. Both say that negotiations are a more or less significant aspect of our present strategy, but that negotiations are not the whole, nor even the most important aspect.

Once again, however, while Slovo explicitly says this, his critics suspect that he is elevating negotiations.

They suspect that he is approaching the present period almost exclusively with a negotiations perspective.

By contrast, the critics of the critics think the latter are

     either insincere when they say negotiations are important in the present; or

     that it is THEY, the critics of Slovo, who are elevating negotiations by expecting them to deliver, more orless immediately, on our longer-term strategic goals.

Once again...THE READER NEEDS TO DECIDE.

Changing the balance of forces

Everyone involved in the debate is agreeing that the present balance of forces is one in which we have not defeated the regime, but in which we have not been defeated by them either. Everyone also agrees that we must constantly work to change the balance of forces in our favour, and that there are many positive reasons to believe that we can indeed do this. But...

     Slovo and the ANC Negotiations Commission tend to portray the next major breakthrough as lying down the path of a negotiated transition in which democratic elections are central; while...

     At least some of the critics seem to suggest that other, more decisive breakthroughs are both desirable and possible.

Who is right?

Once again...THE READER, or rather THE ACTIVIST READER, or, better still, our various COLLECTIVE FORMATIONS, ENGAGED IN STRUGGLE, MUST DECIDE.

And what about "sunset clauses" for power-sharing?

It is obviously important that we debate intelligently and eventually decide, one way or another, on this suggestion.

But we should not simply reduce the present strategic debate to this issue.

We might ACCEPT the suggestion of "sunset clauses" for entirely the wrong reason. For example, we might advocate a "sunset clause" on power-sharing out of some confused strategic belief that our relationship with the regime is not fundamentally antagonistic.

We might equally REJECT the suggestion of a "sunset clause" for wrong reasons. We might argue, for instance, that: "We will NEVER accept any form of power-sharing". But isn't that exactly what we've been calling for, in one form at least, ever since the Harare Declaration (i.e. an Interim Government of National Unity)? Or, we might argue that "power-sharing is not our strategic objective". But is anyone arguing that it is?

There is right-wing opportunism: elevating tactics into strategic objectives; obscuring the fundamental antagonism between our liberation movement and the apartheid regime.

But there is also a lazy left-wing opportunism: telling the people what they want to hear, even when it isn't the truth; obliterating the difference between strategic objectives and day-to-day tactics.

If we either accept or reject "sunset clauses", but for the wrong reasons, we will be condemned to repeat over and over, on each single tactical point, at each single moment of our struggle, the same strategic debate. The debate between right-wing and lazy-left opportunism is a debate without end. Or rather, it tends to end only when the other side completely outmanoeuvres you.

The present debate is, then, not just an opportunity to discuss the merits and dangers of a power sharing "sunset clause".

It is, much more, an opportunity to debate strategy in depth. It is an opportunity to develop, collectively, a strategic perspective that steersour liberation movement past the twin dangers of right-wing and lazy left opportunism.

Some publication notes

Because it is a living, dynamic debate, it is very difficult to pin it down at a particular moment in time. Interventions have been amended by individuals and collectives. For instance, the original ANC Negotiations Commission document ("Strategic Perspective", October 1992), which partly drew on Slovo's paper, was substantially revised. This revision ("Negotiations: A Strategic Perspective") was adopted by the ANC's National Working Committee on 18 November 1992. This document was then, in turn, revised and adopted by the ANC NEC on 25 November 1992.

We have chosen to print this third, revised version here. But the other interventions published here appeared before this version. Many are, therefore, polemicising with the first document. It is up to the reader to decide to what extent specific criticisms in this case still apply.

Pallo Jordan has also written two similar interventions. The first (which we publish here, "Strategic Debate in the ANC", dated October 1992) presents the argument in a more developed form than the second paper. In Jordan's case we have to chosen to publish this first version.

We have made this decision in part because the second does not change the core argument of the first, and in part because it is Jordan's first version that has received the most public attention (notably in a fairly full, but not complete version published in New Nation, 13.11.92).

To assist readers we have, at all times, attempted to cross-reference quotations, particularly in cases where these quotations have been amended out of later versions of papers.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.