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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Strategic objectives of the National Liberation Struggle

This discussion paper arises from the Alliance Strategy Meeting of 26/7 May 1993. The meeting was not a decision-making forum but rather an extended "lekgotla". This paper summarises the main conclusions of an extensive discussion on our broad strategic perspectives. It does not, however, represent the final position of any section of the alliance.

1. Introduction

Around the time of February 2 1990, two things happened more or less simultaneously. Both called for a rethink of our strategic and tactical approaches.

On the one hand there was the collapse in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Not only the SACP, but all sections of our liberation movement had been profoundly influenced in various ways by the existence of the Soviet bloc.

On the other hand, February 2 presented us with a new national terrain for which we had to either develop new strategies, or at leastconsiderably alter existing strategies and tactics. Failure to make such an adaptation would have disarmed us. We had to read the situation accurately and develop the correct approach in order to realise our goals.

Our attempts to adjust tactically and strategically to the new situation have often been innovative. Our adjustments have enabled us, in very difficult circumstances, to maintain, seize or regain the strategic initiative on many fronts.

But these tactical and strategic adjustments have been uneven and, at times, confusing.

Among our broad membership and constituency, these adjustments have often been perceived as a 'sell out', a 'right wing shift' and 'abandonment' of our basic aims. Many of these perceptions relate to the rapidity with which political relationships between the forces of liberation and the regime (and other conservative forces) have moved from confrontation to a mixture of confrontation and engagement. Some have read these changes in our interactions with the regime as also substantially modifying our goals.

But are the necessary adjustments (and some of them are major adjustments) in contradiction, in principle, with our basic National Democratic Revolution goals?

2. What is our basic NDR position?

The clear position of the National Liberation Movement, prior to February 1990, was that we were engaged in a National Democratic Revolution (NDR), the object of which was the emancipation of the black people in general and the African people in particular. This revolution would inaugurate a system of people's power. The revolution would be under the overall leadership of the working class. It would entail national liberation from Colonialism of a Special Type. It would involve fundamental political, social and economic change, transferring power in all sectors into the hands of the people.

The Freedom Charter's broad demands best summarised the overall goals. These goals have generally been encompassed within the phrase 'transfer of power to the people'.

We need now not to abandon, but to elaborate much more thoroughly what we understand by the concept 'transfer of power to the people'. The need to elaborate this more fully is based, not so much on a difficult internal and external balance of forces, but because some of our earlier assumptions about transferring power to the people were limited.

In particular, despite the Freedom Charter's broad social and economic perspectives, we tended to have a statist (that is, state-centred) approach to the NDR. The NDR would come about when an ANC-led National Liberation Movement (NLM) smashed the apartheid regime, assumed state power (which we tended to equate with the 'transfer of power to the people') and then implemented its programme.

In the present situation, however, a state-centred approach to the NDR has emerged in a new variant. This new variant (new at least within our own struggle) is an electoralist and/or constitutionalist variant.

3. A new kind of statism: the NDR as an election or a new constitution

An electoralist or constitutionalist version of NDR sees the revolution as more or less completed with the winning of a non-racial election. in other words, this approach sees the realisation of the NDR occurring at some particular (and fairly close) moment in time. One recent ANC regional conference, for instance, convened under the banner: 'Elections the last step to freedom'.

There are variations on the theme depending on when the decisive event is deemed to occur. In some variations, as in the ANC regional conference, the decisive moment is seen as the elections next year. In others it is the installation of a new democratic constitution, or subsequent elections in terms of this new constitution when "true majority rule" will finally have arrived. The main thing is that some key historical moment of rupture in the political system is identified as the culmination of the NDR.

We must certainly not underestimate the significance of our first ever one-person one-vote elections, or of a constitution made as a result of a democratic process. Every previous South African constitution has been thrust down the throats of the people.

But nor must we collapse the NDR more or less simplistically into these forthcoming events. The unstatedassumption is that it is of no great consequence if all organisation (whether the ANC itself, or its allies) is collapsed into government. It is the government that will deliver unilaterally. The government embodies people's power.

From this perspective, there may still be a commitment to reconstruction. But reconstruction is seen largely as state welfarism the people become consumers of a reconstruction dispensed from above.

Is there an alternative?

4. An alternative approach: national democratic revolution is a process of popular self-empowerment

Whether in the seizure of state power pre-1990 versions, or in the electoralist/constitutionalist versions of the present, the state-centred approaches share common limitations. Absent in them all is any conception of NDR as, essentially, a mass movement and a mass struggle for development and reconstruction.

It is absolutely essential that this kind of emphasis on popular self-empowerment is now elaborated. We say this not because of any populist mystique about the masses. The simple fact is that, without mass involvement and mass organisation, a future democratically-elected state will be relatively weak and isolated in the present global and national balance of forces. Without a mass movement for national democratic transformation, there will be very little effective reconstruction.

The constraints that will impose themselves in the coming five years on government are under-lined by the national unity, power-sharing package into which we shall be entering. This package is a symptom (not the cause) of the global and local constraints within which we are operating.

We believe, therefore, that we must move away from state-centred conceptions of the NDR, both in principle and for sound practical reasons. An alternative approach carries with it a number implications for our understanding of democracy, and for the organ-isational tasks confronting us.

4.1 Deepening our conception of democracy

Thorough-going democratisation of all spheres of our society lies at the heart of the NDR project. To shift away from a narrow statism, means that we need to deepen and widen our conception of what this democracy is.

Democracy is clearly, in the first place, the winning of a non-racial electoral system. This is representative democracy, and it will mark a major historical victory for us. But democracy extends well beyond the immensely important periodic right to one-person one-vote elections at national, regional and local level.

To approach the NDR as an ongoing process of popular self-empowerment, highlights the importance of both participatory and direct democracy.

Participatory democracy needs to be fostered in the development and extension of numerous sectoral forums, at national, regional and local level. These participatory forums are beginning to develop in embryo in the National Economic Forum, in the National Education, Health and Housing Forums, in a number of Regional Development Forums, etc. Participatory democracy also finds expression in SRCs, PTAs, and in shopsteward structures that increase worker power over managerial decisions. The deepening of the ... without mass involvement and mass organisation, a future democratically-elected state will be relatively weak and isolated in the present global and national balance of forces.... democratisation process will need to involve increasing empowerment of these participatory institutions, without undermining organs of representative democracy.

As in the past, the ongoing development of national democratic transition will also require direct democratic action of the people in support of their demands for instance, to ensure the achievement of a basic human right, or in support of a reconstruction demand that might be goverment policy, but which is being resisted by one or another formation.

This latter example underlines a critical point about the NDR. Our attempts to deepen democracy in our country may not, unfortunately, follow a smooth path. We are not the sole actors on the terrain. We must certainly work to ensure that potential antagonists are won over to the process.

But we cannot assume that this will happen. Our struggle for reconstruction may encounter serious destabilisation, even a concerted counter-revolutionary challenge. In such a situation, our alliance will certainly not condemn direct democratic action by the popular masses.

In the face of, let us say, a food production boycott by reactionary farmers, land occupations, with or without prior governmental sanction,will be more than legitimate. Those who are tempted to undermine democratisation need to understand this very clearly.

A reconstruction programme will best achieve its objectives in a climate of peace and stability. We shall work hard to ensure these. Major destabilisation will not be of our choosing. But if we have to pursue reconstruction in the teeth of serious anti-democratic projects, we shall do so, and we shall call, amongst other things, for direct mass action in support of our efforts.

4.2 Organisational implications

4.2.1 The ANC

In the first place, a non-statist view of NDR, a view of NDR that underlines it as a mass-driven process, highlights the ongoing tasks we have in terms of building and consolidating the ANC.

As the ANC, and jointly from within the Tripartite Alliance, we need to build an ANC that remains essentially a broad national liberation movement. It must remain an ANC that is anchored among the oppressed majority. It must be an ANC that is able to lead people in struggle for development and against the thousands of injustices and oppressions they encounter in their daily lives.

This approach must, in no way, detract from the important tasks of winning elections on the ANC ticket, and of governing. We believe that the ANC will discharge both tasks most effectively, in the concrete conditions of our country, precisely if it remains essentially a national liberation movement.

4.2.2. The alliance

In the second place, the view of NDR as a mass driven process of relatively long duration (and not as some political event just around the corner) underlines the need for an enduring Tripartite Alliance. This alliance is grounded in a shared strategic perspective precisely our common commitment to a far-reaching process of national democratic transformation.

In other words, the alliance is not based on some vague "trust" which may or may not be "betrayed" by a future government. (This, incidentally, is another version of statism, a sceptical version). Nor is it an alliance "for old time's sake". Our alliance is not primarily based on nostalgia, on the fact that we have all been "in the same trench together against apartheid".

Our alliance is also not a temporary pact. The reconstruction programme, which we need to elaborate, will enable us to concretise our Charterist perspectives in the context of the 1990s going into the 21st century. The reconstruction programme, which lies at the heart of our NDR, is much more than a temporary electoral platform.

The tripartite is an alliance between autonomous partners but in which there is an enormous interdependence and overlapping of membership. This interdependence is rooted in the character of our struggle, and of our society. Our's is a national liberation struggle against a special form of colonialism, on the terrain of a relatively developed capitalist society. It is a national liberation struggle where, uniquely, the working class is both the leading and the main class force.

We need to admit openly that, regardless of our intentions or traditions, the break-up of our Alliance would carry serious risks for each of the three components.

An ANC cut loose from independent working class formations, would find itself more easily dislodged from its historical and strategic vocation. Regardless of good intentions and an heroic track-record, it would become ever more susceptible to the pressures of governmental office, and to influence of non-popular strata, inside its ranks and beyond. An ANC without the alliance would be an ANC in which the confusion and sense of betrayal amongst its own grass-roots mem-bership would be increased.

A trade union movement that withdraws from the national liberation movement runs the danger of declining into a narrow, economistic unionism. An SACP that "goes it alone", risks becoming a defensive, grievance party, cut adrift from the main-stream of positive transformation.

In alliance, each of our formations has a powerful contribution to make, and each is able to carve out a more effective role for itself. As an alliance, we are more than the sum of our parts. Alone, each of us is diminished.

It is no accident that our antagonists spend a great deal of energy attempting to undermine our unity.

4.2.3 The mass democratic movement

This strategic orientation (the NDR as a process) also underlines the need for a broad mass democratic movement that extends well beyond the ANC and the tripartite alliance. We envisage a broad mass movement for development and reconstruction.

While the ANC and the alliance need to provide leadership and coherence to this broad movement, it is essential that the independent capacity and input of numerous sectoral formations is not undermined. In other words, this broad mass democratic movement will need to be based on the acceptance of pluralistic principles.

5. Conclusion

We believe that the broad strategic perspectives, outlined in this discussion paper, help to meet the dual challenge that confronts us:

     We need to engage effectively on the terrain on which we find ourselves; but in doing this we must not lose sight of

     The strategic objectives of our struggle.

A one-sided concentration on the former, can lead to tactical confusion and an ultimate loss of organisational cohesion and mass support. A one-sided concentration on the latter, can lead to sterile dogmatism, to an inability to engage effectively with the present.

This paper is, as was stated at the beginning, the product of extensive discussion by leadership delegations of the Tripartite Alliance. It is published because, unlike our opponents, we believe that these kinds of discussions need to become the property of our members, our supporters and of all those concerned to see a democratic South Africa.

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.