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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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Raymond Suttner

'Ensuring stable transition to democratic power' by...

At the centre of all debates in South Africa is the question of power. The key moment that has been identified as inaugurating the beginning of people's power, is what has been called the 'transfer of power to the people.' A number of problems now appear to lie in this formulation. In the first place, such a 'transfer of power' to a liberation movement does not necessarily lead to empowerment of the people on the ground. The aspirations of the masses may be treated as having been realised through their representatives occupying offices of power, irrespective of how such power is used.

The experience of Eastern Europe and much of Africa has made South African democrats aware of this problem, though it has not yet been embraced in a comprehensive theorisation of the question of 'transfer of power' or even the wider question of transition and transformation

Another reason why the concept of transfer of power is defective is that it portrays a transfer of a thing, that instead of being used by one set of people,is now used by another, in their interests. Power is seen as a stick directed towards one direction rather than another. Criticising such an approach, Poulantzas correctly remarks:

"To take or capture state power is not simply to lay hands on part of the sate machinery in order to replace it with a second power. Power is not a quantifiable substance held by the state that must be taken out of its hands, but rather a series of relations among the various social classes....The State is neither a thing instrument that may be taken away, nor a fortress that may be penetrated by means of a wooden horse, nor yet a safe that may be cracked by burglary: it is the heart of the exercise of political power."1

Our conception of power has, in the past, tended to view the taking and wielding of power as a single decisive moment. This is premised on state power being the key 'site' or 'instrument' of power, and that capturing of the state or displacing it with one's own state settles all else.2

We need to move away from an understanding of the struggle for power as one where we struggle to control and use an instrument, towards one where the masses are empowered and through new positions of strength disempower the oppressors in various ways. This is an ongoing struggle in the state and in various areas where relations of power exist, where the masses empower themselves, neutralise contending forces and gradually break down patterns of domination and reconstitute relationships of power in a manner that serves popular interests

Even at the level of the state, in the present conjuncture, we inherit a hostile civil service and security forces. This means that they can-not be used to further democratic transformation and that they may, instead, use their positions to frustrate such transformation.

But the further problem is that power is exercised in a number of sites inside and out-side the state and there is no automatic succumbing of those occupying these other arenas of power to the goals of a national democratic revolution

We then have the situation that we may assume office but simultaneously not be able to wield much power.

We need, then, to recognise that the question of empowering or the self-empowering of ordinary people and using state power to assist inthis, is not fully achieved through one massive onslaught on the state. We are talking of a process that may include a number of decisive moments.

It is also not a process whose inception need wait for the transfer of power at the level of the state and there are indeed areas where the process of empowerment has already begun through mass struggle and organisation. This ought not to be something separate from the processes of engagement and transformation.

If we consider power as embracing a number of relations, our own power is already being embodied in a number of forms of mass struggle and organisation, which must remain a decisive element in a democratic transition.

We are also talking of an approach that entails engaging a number of terrains of power-the state but also the sites of economic power, cultural, educational, health, media, law, etc., etc When we engage such structures we do so through a combination of negotiations and mass struggle.

Prior to 1990 the opportunities for relating to the enemy were mainly confrontational or collaborationist. We now engage the enemy in a number of terrains which entail an element of negotiations. The fact that we relate to the enemy in this way does not mean the contradictions between us are removed. When a union wins recognition and the bosses negotiate with the workers, labour and capital are united in a relationship, while simultaneously standing in contradiction to one another.

Where an agreement emerges from this relationship it never removes the fundamental contradictions between the two sides. Consequently the agreement itself becomes the basis for further struggles. Because of these contradictory objectives, in the case of capital to maximise profits and in the case of labour to maximise the wage package and improve working conditions, the objectives of both parties are never fully realised at the table.

The negotiating table, in any such situation, is merely one site where these contradictions are addressed. In order to ensure that one or other side succeeds in realising more of its goals than the other,it is necessary to use one's strength.

It is essential for the forces of liberation to rely on more than the power of logic, and that is why we organise ourselves to tilt the balance of forces on the ground in our favour. It is said that any agreement reflects our power on the ground. It is possible, however, that this may not be the case, and this is certainly the case if our mass power is passive and if our constituency is the equivalent of 'soldiers in barracks'.

The power that we command, through the actions of our membership and the masses in general must be registered in any agreement. But we need to do more than that. We need to relate to all the elements of the present terrain in such a way as to direct the process.

This includes the international terrain. We need to engage in diplomatic efforts that build the broadest possible international consensus behind our efforts-to achieve multi-party democracy, freedom of political activity and peace. We need to make efforts to ensure that the world as a whole sees us as the most reliable repository of these agreed values. At the same time, we need to consolidate South-South relations -with the states that, together with us, will find themselves in contradiction with imperialism in their efforts to go beyond formal political liberty and ensure a better life for all their citizens.

This process includes winning and maintaining the 'moral high-ground' with these forces3. This cannot be counterposed to retaining the support of our people.One of the reasons for the international solidarity behind our struggle has been, in the past, that we have been seen as the force that was in the right, that we represented a just cause. Especially now, with a unipolar world, we have to ensure that De Klerk's use of the language of liberation does not change that understanding in any way.

The regime understands very well that negotiations are a site of struggle. In backing its demands,it deploys the power of the military and secret forces to under-mine democratic goals and organisation. It engages in diplomacy aimed at depicting itself as the only player capable of managing the transition, and the force best able to guarantee the future of capital. It engages in unilateral restructuring with a view to denuding a future democratic state of resources with which it can address socio-economic aspirations. It engages in numerous other projects aimed at establishing its hegemony over the process of transition, in particular its control of the public media and its influence over the media in general.

The question that we now face is, given that we have unchanged goals based on the Freedom Charter, unchanged compared with pre-1990, unchanged from the period prior to the suspension of armed action, how do we realise these?

How do we achieve a successful transition to democratic rule in the current conjuncture, a form of democracy that does not close off further advance towards deeper empowerment at all levels?

This question is answered in relation to two factors, firstly our own power to advance our demands and secondly, our capacity to neutralise the forces that may destabilise or frustrate this process, in particular the forces of counterrevolution.

Cde Joe Slovo's contribution is valuable in taking some of the compromises that are being suggested within our ranks and limiting them in a way that is unlikely to frustrate democratic objectives. But it is still not adequately argued that compromises should be advanced at all. At this point in time, is it tactically desirable for us to see, as a starting point for taking the process forward, the advancing of compromises? Secondly, we need to ask, whether such compromises would in fact have the effect of advancing the process towards democracy.

The problem with comrade Slovo's approach is that he abstracts one possible clement of this process,one possible intervention, compromise, addressed to the National Party, out of the total context. We need to be asking ourselves in the context of a successful transition to a democratic order: how can the masses drive this process, and ensure that it reaches this goal, and that they are in fact empowered, and those who resist democracy are disempowered? What steps do we need to take against those who want to divert or frustrate or completely derail the process?

The problem is not purely one of compromise. An offer to the other side or to an element of that side, cannot float freely, independent of an overall conception of how we see things unfolding. We need to ask what a particular intervention will do, in terms of the reactions of various relevant parties. We cannot assume that a particular offer will have one or other effect. We need to ask ourselves what the potential variables in behaviour of those to whom such an offer is directed, may be.

In the same way we need to ask ourselves dispassionately, what we do to neutralise civil servants and security forces who may destabilise a future democracy.4 We need to ask ourselves, if we decide to guarantee their pensions, whether such measures should necessarily be embraced within a package offered to the National Party and also try to envisage the type of reaction they would evoke, which is by no means obvious.

In regard to the question of with whom a deal should be struck, it is not obvious that the NP should be offered guarantees to civil servants. If we consider this a necessary measure, should we ourselves not offer it directly to such civil servants and not allow the NP to continue to be the dispenser of patronage to whites?

We need also to map out a scenario of possible problems and possible reactions to measures that we take to solve them. If we offer a power sharing arrangement to the NP, is this necessarily a measure that will control the security forces better? I am not saying that it is not, but we need to ask whether voluntarily retaining the NP close to the centres of state power means that they will use their access to the security forces and other civil servants to stabilise or destabilise.

But the key question to ask is whether concessions to civil servants and security forces will necessary contain or discourage their willingness to engage in counterrevolution. It could, in fact, be argued on the basis, say, of the Chilean experience, that concessions in such a situation may embolden them towards the counterrevolutionary road. Ralph Miliband writes that the Allende regime:

"appears to have sought to buy the [military's] support and good will by conciliation and concessions, right up to the time of the coup, notwithstanding the ever-growing evidence of the military's hostility...."5

"Allende believed in conciliation because he feared the result of a confrontation. But because he believed that the Left was bound to be defeated in any such confrontation, he had to pursue with ever-greater desperation his policy of conciliation; but the more he pursued that policy, the greater grew the assurance and boldness of his opponents...."6

The development of such scenarios should also include the reaction of our people. In the past, most obviously in the case of the suspension of armed action, we made certain decisions without taking adequate account of the reaction of our membership. If there is a sense on the part of our membership that something is a 'sell out' it can create a sense of bitterness and distrust, as may well have happened after the signing of the Pretoria Minute. This type of dissatisfaction can also be exploited and must be avoided by properly under-standing how people would relate to such a step, and that they do not see us making endless attempts to meet the fears of the other side, without adequately and speedily addressing their own aspirations.7

The best way of avoiding this, may be, and here we can also draw from the Chilean experience,to actively involve the masses in any plan to foil counterrevolution. A buying off of top civil servants/security services may have merit. That needs fuller discussion. But that is not a substitute for carrying our mass power into this area, using the masses as the main guarantor of the transition. Miliband remarks that:

"Moreover, and crucially, a policy of conciliation of the regime's opponents heldthe grave risk of discouraging and demobilizing its supporters....

"Even as late as the end of June 1973, when the abortive military coup was launched, popular willingness to mobilize against would-be putschists was by all accounts higher than at any time since Allende's assumption of the presidency. This was probably the last moment at which a change of course might have been possible- and it was also, in a sense, the moment of truth for the regime: a choice was made, namely that the President would continue to try to conciliate and he did go on to make concession after concession to the military's demands."8

Insofar as the masses of South Africa have been able to make SA ungovem-able, ought we not to place some reliance on them to ensure that SA remains governable during a transition, rather than on buying off those who have an interest in destabilising?

The partial character of Slovo's contribution is that it is not made within such a context mapping out the transition and the possible variables that can undermine it. The narrow focus on compromise cuts off alternative options for ensuring the stability of a transition.

Character of the conjuncture: The Inadequacy of the llzlmande/Gwala and other attacks on Slovo

Whatever the limitations on the scope ofSlovo's approach, his contribution has evoked criticism and debate that has brought into the open some of the doubts that people have about a strategy that includes negotiations as a route to power. This also indicates that we require greater clarity on our understanding of the current conjuncture and the possibilities that it opens up.

In Slovo's contribution he made the initial characterisation of the current conjuncture as follows:

"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."9

The only problem that one might have with this formulation is what is meant by the regime 'genuinely seeking some break with the past."10 It needs to be clear that the meaning consistent with reality is that there is a recognition to move (on the side of the regime) but it is not towards the same destination as we have in mind.11

Slovo says that this conjuncture, which he argues 'continues to reflect current reality', provides a classical scenario which placed the possibility of negotiations on the agenda.

Slovo correctly concludes that this conjuncture meant that the regime was not suing for surrender and he makes the important remarks:

"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. In other words, negotiations is only a part, and not the whole of the struggle for people's power. "12

What, then, can we expect negotiations to yield along this path to people's power?

"It [negotiations] is clearly a key element or a stage in the struggle process towards full and genuine liberation. It is a key element because it holds out the possibility of bringingabout a radically transformed political framework in which the struggle for the achievement of the main objectives of the national democratic revolution will be contested in conditions far more favourable to the liberation forces than they are now."13

What is striking about the attacks on Slovo's article is that they reveal a very important divergence over the notion of transition. While the just quoted passage from Slovo acknowledges the process as entailing a number of key moments, Nzimande, Gwala and Jordan clearly locate their approach within a notion where one decisive break replaces apartheid power with 'our power'. It is important that we see this as the beginning of a debate that is crucial to our struggle.

Blade Nzimande entitles his attack on Slovo 's paper, 'Let us take the people with us'. The implication is that Slovo does not intend this. Whatever disagreements one may have with his paper, Slovo clearly intends precisely to take the people with him. Thus he qualifies his suggestions by saying "subject to proper consultation with our constituency, the compromises touched upon here are both reason-able and conducive to a speedier transformation."14

But for the sake of the present argument, let us take as given that no settlement will stick unless it has popular backing. Furthermore,no settlement will satisfy our people's aspirations unless it is part of an ongoing process of empowerment and transformation. We are aiming not merely at 'taking the people with us' but having them drive a process which brings them democratic power in all spheres of their lives.

An impression that one is left with in Nzimande's contribution and also that of Cde Gwala is that there is an ambivalence about entering the terrain of negotiations. The negotiations option is treated as a defeat or a result of defeat in armed struggle, our failure at a particular moment to successfully mount an armed struggle. Negotiations are, therefore, entered into reluctantly, though we reserve the right to go for the 'real option', should it prove possible over time:

"It [the strategic perspective of the transfer of power] would allow tactical flexibility, such that the movement could negotiate with the regime whilst at the same time not ruling out the possibility of rapidly setting in place a strategic path towards a seizure of power if negotiations fail."15

The problem with this approach is that it does not recognise the opening up of the negotiations terrain as a victory wrested reluctantly from the regime. Comrade Thabo Mbeki is correct when he says:

"It is only when the prospect of any peaceful settlement vanished that we resorted to arms, while for the regime, it was the failure of arms that imposed the obligation to concede the need for negotiations."16

This is not to say that the regime does not intend using this terrain to try to co-opt us or divert us from our objectives. But this does not detract from the fact that we forced them to concede this space to us.

The negotiations terrain needs to be understood as part of a new conjuncture created as a result of our power. It also has to be under-stood as the swiftest route to democratic goals, especially if we combine negotiations with mass action to qualitatively change the balance of forces in our favour.

It needs to be understood as quite a different thing to mount the type of action that changes not just the balance of forces, but the character of the conjuncture (as we did in the late 1980s),for example in such a way as to put insurrection on the agenda. Whether that would be a step forward or not is also open to question.

If the present conjuncture is correctly characterised by Slovo, is it right to say that he "succumbs"17 to these conditions and that we could instead hedge our bets and pursue negotiations while simultaneously, prepare for total defeat of the enemy/seizure of power?

That is what Nzimande appears to be advocating when he says:

"Our immediate goal should be the total defeat of the National Parry and the apartheid regime, and in so doing we should not aim at any power-sharing arrangement whatsoever... The first step towards the total abolition of apartheid is the total and decisive defeat of the National Party, which is our immediate enemy in terms of national democratic transformation.'18

If we could unilaterally impose our will, maybe we would do so. But given the reality of the situation, is such a 'total defeat' possible? What exactly does Nzimande mean by a 'total defeat'?

In the present context a negotiated solution, as opposed to an imposed solution,would in its result bear something of the power of both parties, i.e. assuming that the power of the ANC is overwhelming, it will still embrace in an agreement with the NP something thatqualifies the total objectives of the ANC. It will in some way reflect elements of the interests of the other side.

Nzimande rejects this by the assertion of a goal, without any indication of how it can be realised:

"If we decisively defeat the Nationalist Party and its surrogates in a democratic election, let them become the opposition or disappear from the face of a democratic South Africa."19

Is it that simple to translate this goal into reality? Given that the NP and its allies may command substantial powers of destabilisation do we not have to ask ourselves whether a temporary power-sharing arrangement will possibly prevent counterrevolution [though as indicated, I do not accept this as self-evident] and more importantly if they disappear from the 'face of democratic South Africa', what exactly does this mean? Are they to be eliminated? Are they to be excluded from the constitutional order? Are they not then invited to engage in counterrevolution?

No amount of phraseology about being uncompromising is a substitute for a concrete analysis of the actual difficulties and possibilities on the ground. Thus Nzimande' s ' approachto negotiations' called 'the people shall govern!' is not an approach. It is not a strategy nor a tactic. It is a statement of an aspiration. The question is how popular power drives the process, and this is only partially dealt with by reference to consultation, linkage of mass struggles to negotiations, etc. It is also a question of how that power leads to a democratic result that we can defend. Nzimande does not address this beyond generalisations. His conclusion is:

"A mass driven transition process would lay a better foundation for real democracy, whereas a bureaucratic transition (a pact between elites) will lead to an undemocratic and reactionary post-apartheid regime."20

This invites a number of questions: Who is advocating pacts between elites as an alternative to a mass-driven process? It does not seem to be Slovo's approach and it is generally not admitted to be anyone's approach in the movement.21

More importantly, what is the way in which a mass driven process can secure a successful negotiated solution? Nzimande does not offer assistance. Consultation is not a strategy, it is part of a successful conduct of a strategy for a democratic transition. It is not in itself a manifestation of power and in regard to power, where does Nzimande see it lie?

Seizure of power

One gets the repeated impression not only that negotiations is a poor cousin of seizure of power, but that its result will be something less thoroughgoing. It invites the question, if there is something different envisaged between negotiated transfer and a seizure, is it not that seizure is insurrectionary? If so, is the current situation favourable towards such an approach? Do we have the capacity? By holding out the possibility are we not diverting resources and aspirations away from the most likely path towards a democratic order? By embarking on an insurrectionary path might we not in fact be inviting counterrevolutionary defeat?

Should we not be concentrating on defending and expanding the present terrain if it does hold out the possibility of the swiftest route towards our destination?

In short, by holding out insurrectionary possibilities or an absolute victory, if only by innuendo, is one arming or disarming? In principle, one must accept that arguing for insurrection where it has little hope of success, is just as disarming as arguing for pacifism in the face of an armed attack.

It is a millenarian response,it is an opiate appropriate to the weak who concentrate their hopes on an otherworldly solution. As Marxists, we should be grappling with the real possibilities on this earth on which we find ourselves.


1 Nicos Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism,1978 pp 257-8

2 In this context, we need to re-examine Lenin's writings on both the state and democracy. cf eg. Alan Hunt 'Taking Democracy Seriously' in Alan Hunt (ed) Marxism and Democracy. 1980, p7 ff

3 cf. the criticism of Slovo's reference to the moral high ground in Blade Nzimande p.21.

4 cf Blade Nzimande in his critique of Slovo, 'Let us take the people with us: a reply to Slovo' is not of great assistance when he writes:

"Slovo seems to be resigned to the fact that the new government will be controlled by apartheid officials. We need to discuss ways and means of dealing with this situation, other than just presenting one option, that of power-sharing. In as much as the regime is preparing itself to hold a democratic government at ransom through, amongst other things, the current unilateral restructuring, we should be doing the same by preparing ourselves to deal with sabotage by apartheid officials, counterrevolution and how to quickly create a new army and police force." p.22. The question is how?

cf also Pallo Jordan 'Strategic Debate in the ANC': 'If... the officer corps and ranks of the SADF and SAP are likely to be opponents of a democratic order, I would have thought that underlined the need to have them vacate these strategically important posts as soon as possible. The gravest danger to a transition and the democratic order is precisely such potential fifth columnists.' p.13. Again, the problem is whether it is so simple to remove them and secondly, if possible, what happens to them? Are they left to become a counterrevolutionary force?

5 Ralph Miliband, 'The Coup in Chile', 1973, Socialist Register, p451 and 469

6 p470

7 [T]there are dangers of an ultra-left counterrevolution whose social base could be the poverty, disaffection and frustrated aspirations of the people. The dangers of an ultra-left counterrevolution, exploiting the dissatisfaction and demoralisation of our people is equally explosive [to that of a rightwing counterrevolution-RS]'-'Summary of the discussions by the Natal Midlands Region on the SACP's approach to negotiations", 20 October 1992 p2-3

8 p 471

9 p 36. Emphasis in original

10 This formulation is indeed attacked by Jordan and others

11 cf Jeremy Cronin, 'The boat, the tap and the Leipzig way"(1992) The African Communist, 3rd Quarter, p41 and 43). See also P Jordan, 'Strategic debate in the ANC'

12 p 36

13 p 37. Emphasis in original

14 p40

15 Nzimande, p.20. It is true that this does not directly say that we should prefer seizure, but in the context of the overall tenor of the article this is strongly implied

16 Mayibuye, November 1992 p9. cf. in contrast, Gwala : 'Right from the beginning the oppressed have never ruled out negotiations'p.25. (my emphasis)

17 Nzimande p20

18 p22

19 ibid

20 p23

21 Though it is that of V an Zyl Slabbert (see e.g. his book, The Quest for Democracy,1992), and it is the basis on which some elements in the leadership have sometimes sought to conduct negotiations. cf. Cronin op cit.

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.