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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Affirmative action time for a class approach

What is affirmative action? In most people's minds affirmative action has come to mean the promotion of individuals - usually blacks, more specifically Africans - into managerial posts and into share-holding. It is about individual blacks "getting a slice of the action", the capitalist action, that is.

The SACP thoroughly rejects this approach to affirmative action.

Affirmative action should be seen primarily as the empowerment of social groups, sectors and classes which have been historically oppressed. It is primarily about collective empowerment, not the promotion of individuals.

Affirmative action is about extending roads and electricity to marginalised rural communities. It is about developing an extensive, state-run primary health network, and introducing a free, compulsory ten years of education to all children inour country. Affirmative action is about giving all old people an equal and living pension. Affirmative action is a massive programme of job creation for the millions of unemployed in our country. It is about empowering women through adult education and the provision of creches. It is about giving workers increasing powers over decision-making on the shop-floor.

Once you speak of affirmative action in this way, you are on the right track. Notice that you are then underlining not just racial oppression, but also class oppression, gender oppression and the massive inequalities between rural and urban areas.

Affirmative action, in this sense, understands that overcoming decades of racial, class and gender oppression will not be ended simply by formal rights, by constitutional equality for all South Africans. Nor will these things be ended simply by creating a new middle class of blacks. The active and purposeful engagement of a democratic state and of progressive formations in civil society is essential - affirmative action, precisely, and not just formal change or cosmetic promotions is required to overcome the legacy of oppression.

The struggle for this kind of perspective on affirmative action has become more necessary than ever before. The character and strategic direction of the ANC-led liberation alliance is, to some extent, at stake.

Consider this recent report in The Star: "ANC Youth League president Peter Mokaba and his business associates are bidding fiercely to buy into the cellular phone service provider industry, but he is facing aggressive competition from other black business interests." (October 26, 1993). This reported bid follows an agreement struck between the ANC, the Pretoria regime and the two companies involved in cellular phones prescribing minimum stakes for black business in the industry.

At the time of going to press The African Communist is not certain of the accuracy of this report. Comrade Peter Mokaba has certainly been the target of some extremely negative and biased press reporting in the past. But the above story is not hostile in tone, and it follows a similar report in which Mokaba is quoted as saying that the ANC Youth League should acquire a stake in the cellular phone business "in order to make the Youth League financially independent of the ANC." (October 22).

Is financial dependence on the ANC worse than financial dependence on the profitability of the cellular phone business - a technology which the alliance has said is elitist and ill-suited to the needs of our country? Most progressive formations try to build financial independence by relying on their organised base. Is that no longer valid? Are Mokaba's "business associates" referred to in The Star other Youth Leaguers acting on behalf of the Youth League, or are they simply aspirant entrepreneurs?

There are many questions that arise, but we do not wish to pursue them here. As we have said, we are not even sure of the accuracy of all the reports.

The purpose of raising these issues here is not to point fingers at individuals, but rather to raise alarm bells. There are many sad examples in the rest of our continent, where heroic national liberation struggles have been undermined by leaders using political power for self-enrichment purposes.

We have said in the past that the imperialists and the local ruling bloc, having failed to smash the ANC, now have as their prime objective the transformation of the ANC. A key component of this strategy is, precisely, to transform leadership elements into a bureaucratic bourgeois stratum by giving them "a slice of the action". This is a stratum that in its life-styles, outlook and aspirations becomes increasingly dependent on the big corporations, and increasingly remote from the popular masses.

The path to advancement for this bureaucratic stratum is precisely its political ' power and erstwhile popularity. Power is cashed in for economic rewards. We have, in the recent past, talked about the dangers of a tap-on tap-off approach to mass mobilisation and the negotiation process. We are now, perhaps, witnessing an even more dangerous and cynical tap-on tap-off manipulation of popular forces. Mass mobilisation is turned on in order to improve the economic bidding hand of a political elite.

We cannot allow this to happen here.

We are not saying that a gender-sensitive, working class biased collective programme of affirmative action will not also involve the promotion of thousands of blacks and women in the civil service, in the army and police, in government, in the economy. Clearly the removal of formal race discrimination will open up more opportunities for black business-people.

To have effective democratisation and reconstruction, we will need a civil service, for instance, that speaks the language of our people, that is rooted among the people. This will certainly require a massive programme of black promotions to displace many ill-qualified, backward and generally ill-suited white males who dominate the service presently. But the promotion of blacks, of women, of workers must, at all times, be subordinated to the broader tasks of collective reconstruction and development.

We must never allow ourselves to confuse the advancement of a new middle stratum with the totality of national liberation. In eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, socialism collapsed because the party and state increasingly substituted for the class they claimed to represent. In much of Africa the national liberation project is in crisis because a black bureaucratic bourgeois stratum has substituted its individual advancement for that of the oppressed majority. The ANC-led alliance's prime vocation must remain with the great majority, the workers and the poor.

We want collective empowerment, not the individual enrichment of a small band of black yuppies.

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.