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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The present political situation

A central committee discussion document

On June 18, the SACP Central Committee held its first plenary meeting since the April elections. Among items on the agenda was a political assessment of the new situation. A discussion paper was presented and fully discussed. The following document is the original paper as amended by the collective discussion.

Introduction - Mayibuye's approach

Our ANC-led liberation movement has just emerged from a major election victory, celebrated world-wide. Yet despite, or rather partly because of our major breakthrough there is, at present, considerable strategic confusion throughout the ANC-aligned movement, including within our own party. We believe that the SACP, as in the recent past, now has a very important duty to help develop a clearer strategic perspective for our whole movement. That there is a crying need for such a contribution is underlined by, for instance, the most recent Mayibuye, the official monthly journal of the ANC.

In the spirit of comradely criticism, we believe that it is a useful starting point to consider, in some detail, the editorial of the May/June 1994 issue of Mayibuye. The issue, with a cover of Impala jets flying over the Union Buildings and a slogan "FREE AT LAST!", devotes itself to celebrating and analysing the situation in South Africa after the elections of April. The editorial sets about its analysis as follows:

I. The moment has arrived. Liberation. Real change. National Democratic Revolution. Call it what you may.

"It is the moment that flashed through the minds of many a hero as they succumbed to the assassin's bullet, the hangman's noose and the torturer's fatal blow...

"It was slow in coming. From the forbearers' welcoming embrace many centuries ago which was returned with a suffocating grip. And the modest beginnings of mass action, armed struggle and underground work. To the wrangles in negotiating chambers and Third Force violence. And, at the apex, the attempted sabotage of the electoral process...

II. "Yet we dare not forget in the din of the cry of success and the soothing words of reconciliation: the march has been long and difficult; but we have only reached a milestone. Important in its significance, imposing in its frame and high up the steep - but only a milestone all the same. The real battle, beyond pomp and ceremony and the symbolism of a new flag and anthem, has just begun.

"Now, ordinary people will rejoice only at the sight of the foundation of the first of the million houses that have to be built over the next five years...Now is the time to make good the election pledge. In this regard, the words of a writer on the French Revolution are instructive Patiently endured so long as it seemed beyond redress, a grievance comes to appear intolerable once the possibility of removing it crosses men's minds'.

"In June, allocations from the budget will be decided upon. A modest beginning can then be made. Commitment of the multi-party cabinet and civil service to reconstruction and development is crucial.

III. "But, above all, the ANC must rely on the basic source of strength that has brought us to where we are:confidence in the people and accountability to them.

IV. "This and only this will give meaning to the moment's outpouring of emotion. The deserved victory will be worth its salt because it will be able to defend and advance itself."

This is an editorial that reveals considerable uncertainty, and some hedging of bets. There are four distinct "gear-changes" which we have labelled I, II, III and IV.

GEAR-CHANGE I In line with the FREE AT LAST! cover of the edition, the present moment is portrayed as the culmination of decades, even of centuries of struggle. It is the moment". It is: "Liberation. Real change. National Democratic Revolution. Call it what you may." The last sentence starts to give the game away - the truth is, the Mayibuye editorialist is not sure how to characterise the conjuncture.

However, having done its best (with much rhetorical hype and pomp) to present the conjuncture as the crowning moment of centuries of struggle, the editorial then, somewhat unconvincingly, shifts to:

GEAR-CHANGE II - "The real battle, beyond pomp and ceremony and the symbolism of a new flag and an-them, has just begun." How does this square with the earlier claim that what we have just witnessed is "the moment", "real change"? But, leaving this aside, what is the content of the "real battle" that now still lies ahead? It is clearly (and correctly) in the mind of the editorialist a battle for the implementation of the RDP.

But notice how this implementation is conceptualised:

     "Now, ordinary people will rejoice only at the sight of the foundation of the first of the million houses..." Ordinary people are reduced to spectators of an RDP process. This is reinforced by:

     The quotation from the "writer on the French Revolution". (Significantly, this unnamed writer is Tocqueville, a conservative 19th century writer. This particular quotation happens to be one that is now frequently quoted by neo-liberals as a warning about the dangers of inciting "rising expectations". It is a quotation beloved by those who want negotiated transitions to be elite affairs.) The quote itself ("Patiently endured so long...") suggests that the mass forces in our country have been passive until this moment, and that it has only now dawned upon them that things could be different.

     And then, in line with all of the above, the editorial goes on: "In June, allocations from the budget will be decided upon. A modest beginning can then be made". This suggests an entirely bureaucratic and state-centred (not people-driven) RDP.

However, the writer seems to be aware of these kinds of allegations, and so to protect this flank, there is a shift to:

GEAR-CHANGE III where the editorial appears to gesture towards a mass-driven process, but only in the most neutralised way: "The ANC must have...confidence in the people..." What does that mean practically? And so:

GEAR-CHANGE IV The inability of the editorial to offer some basic pointers to its readership on what to DO (apart from wait for the June budget) is underlined by the closing sentence: "The deserved victory...will be able to defend and advance itself People have disappeared from the scene, and "victory" is doing all the work by itself. Gear-change IV has put history into automatic.

We have dealt at some length with the Mayibuye editorial because it has the great merit of displaying visibly many of the reasons for the present strategic and organisational confusion in the ranks of our broad liberation movement. If we are to effectively analyse the present situation we need at least to begin to:

1. correctly characterise what has happened as a result of the elections;

2. defend a progressive interpretation of the process over these past four years;

3. correctly characterise the main political challenges confronting the liberation movement; and

4. provide some practical guidelines to our cadres and members on how to move forward.

So far (and the Mayibuye article is typical) we have not been doing well in any of these regards. What follows is an attempt to outline a broad framework (no more) for the first three of these issues (the fourth is left to the separate discussion on Organisation and a Programme of Action):


1.1 The April election was an extremely important victory for our liberation struggle. The huge majority backing for the ANC, which we have always claimed, was decisively demonstrated. The extreme right-wing had calculated that its campaign of bombings and general destabilisation would result in a poor turn-out. The disciplined mass turnout was a decisive rebuff to these forces. Once more, at a critical turning point, the process was mass-driven. However, despite the historical significance of the elections, it is entirely wrong to portray them as the culmination of the National Democratic Revolution. The election was an extremely important moment in the process of an unfolding and still lengthy NDR. The election victory must neither be over- nor understated.

1.2 The election has, generally, and once more, altered the relative balance of forces in our country. It has considerably strengthened the ANC-alliance. In the government of national unity the ANC is dominant. The ANC is also strong in the 400-seat National Assembly (with over 60% of the deputies, including 51 communists). In the 90-seat senate the ANC has exactly two-thirds (60) of the senators. In most of the nine provincial assemblies there are also ANC majorities with the exceptions of Western Cape and Natal.

1.3 But the balance of forces re-mains complex, the security forces, the civil service, the control and ownership of the economy, the media, the judiciary - in all of these areas, we are inheriting a white-minority and capitalist legacy. Protracted transformation struggles lie ahead, and clearly such transformation re-quires effective use of our new positions in government and co-ordination of these new positions with our traditional power-base - our mass and community-based structures.

1.4 However, our own extra-parliamentary areas of traditional strength, in the mass and community-based movements, are certainly not as powerful as they were in the second half of the 1980s. The ANC and SACP organisational structures are also extremely weak on the ground.

1.4.1 This is all partly the result of our successes, which are now involving the relocation of hundreds of seasoned cadres into national and provincial legislatures, into the civil service, and soon into local government. Of course, it would be wrong to imagine that these cadres are all now suddenly lost to the extra-parliamentary movement. Clearly ANC MPs and others will need to be deployed for all kinds of organisational work. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the movement of large numbers of former full-time or highly active cadres into new jobs is impacting upon grass-roots organisation, various sectoral formations, and upon the ANC itself as a liberation movement.

1.4.2 But the dislocation of our mass and community-based formations is also related to the new strategic challenges facing them. Many major sectoral formations (the unions, the civics) are calling for a "back to basics" orientation, sensing that in the past years, they have been too drawn into technical, national negotiating forums. What is more, in getting back to basics, these sectoral formations cannot simply return, mechanically, to the 1980s. They will have to adjust (of course not completely) from a more oppositional into a more developmental mode - without losing their combativeness. All of these pose difficult challenges. 1.5 And what will become of the new ANC political stratum (perhaps some tens of thousands in number), the new ministers, provincial executives, local government cadres, MPs, top civil servants and professional security personnel? We should also add the hundreds of ANC cadres now being promoted, with varying degrees of sincerity, by the private sector in the name of affirmative action. All of these cadres will certainly be subjected to conflicting pressures. At the moment many of the new ANC ministers find themselves isolated within their own ministries. Will they become hostages of the old civil servants and of their new privileges, or will their precarious position spur them to seek continual reinforcement from the mass movement? Clearly, we cannot just leave these things to chance. As a party, and as an integral member of the ANC-led alliance, we will have to develop clear organisational and strategic interventions that ensure that the onward momentum of the NDR is sustained.

In doing this we shall have to:


2.1 As the SACP has repeatedly emphasised, there has been a consistent campaign by our strategic opponents to transform the ANC. Having failed to defeat and liquidate the ANC in previous decades, their agenda is to transform it into a narrow neo-colonial bureaucracy and/or, at best, a centre-left electoral machine. Drawing the correct lessons from the past four years is part of the struggle to counter this agenda.

2.2 Our neo-liberal strategic opponents constantly try to undermine our confidence in our own mass-based strength. Mass campaigns, Self Defence Units, MK, the National Peace Keeping Force, militant personalities (notably Chris Hani before his death), the SACP and socialist and progressive ideas, all are the targets of systematic attempts to undermine their legitimacy. Neo-liberal voices have even attempted to analyse the election result in centrist terms:

"In seven exhilirating days, South Africa became hostile territory for the radicals and ideologues of the Left and Right. A new country, with a distinctive thrust to its politics was born...The radical Left, in the form of the PAC, was devastated...The Radical Right in the form of the Freedom Front was contained to a mere 2,9 percent." (Hugh Robertson, "Radicals left out in the cold", The Star, 4 May 1994).

The Beeld (May 2, 1994) had a similar editorial analysis, claiming that the PAC's electoral performance shows that: "South Africans are tired of revolutionary parties."

2.3 In order to draw the correct conclusions about how to continue the struggle in the coming period, it is absolutely essential that we defend and popularise the past four years as essentially a mass-driven process. In doing this we are not exaggerating or bending the truth, on the contrary. In this regard, our Party chairperson's 20th November 1993 political overview presented to the CC remains absolutely relevant:

"The experience of the past three years proved that negotiations are a terrain of struggle which, at the end of the day, depend upon the balance of forces outside the process. It was the link between the negotiations and our mass struggle that played an absolutely key role".

This does not mean, of course, as cde Slovo immediately went on to say at the time, that we uncritically romanticise all mass activity in the last period. Nor does it mean that we should overlook periods in the past four years in which we failed, for various reasons, to give adequate leadership to the mass movements.

In order to defend the mass-line we need also to accurately locate our activity within the context of:


Some of the strategic confusion (in the Mayibuye editorial, for instance) comes from an inability to distinguish and interrelate three distinct, overlapping and to some extent conflicting political challenges.

3.1 A consensus against barbarism.

3.1.1 The first challenge has been to build a massive national (and inter-national) consensus against a descent into barbarism in SA. This is a consensus against the destabilisation of the whole democratisation process, including the elections and the newly elected institutions.

3.1.2 Three or four months ago this challenge was, perhaps, the most pressing challenge. At the beginning of the year there was a significant extreme right-wing threat. The plans of the white and the black right-wing alliance were aimed at under-mining the elections with armed up-risings in many parts of SA.

3.1.3 To guard against this danger and to build a consensus against this danger, certain concessions have had to be made - the GNU itself; assurances from the ANC that there would not be wholesale persecution of apartheid security personnel for past sins; assurances about relative job security for all civil servants; assurances to the international community about future economic policies - all of these have been part of meeting this challenge. We can, and need of course, to debate whether we have conceded too much.

3.1.4 It was (and is) not always easy to develop an accurate estimate of the dangers of the extreme-right in our country. For their own purposes the old intelligence and security formations (which remain dominant in these areas) often exaggerate the threat. We certainly need always to assess critically the level of threat. But it would be wrong to simply dismiss the threat as fictional. If we wanted to, we could turn SA into a Bosnia or a Rwanda. We could drive battalions of the old SADF into the hands of Terreblanche. We could frighten imperialists into bankrolling Inkatha warlords in an "anti-communist" crusade. All of these things were (and are) possible.

3.1.5 This first challenge, which was arguably the most pressing challenge at the beginning of the year, is now less important, primarily because we have, for the moment, successfully met the challenge. We have (for the moment) marginalised the extreme right-wing. It has no notable external or internal backers. We have split the right-wing alliance, and we have drawn elements of this alliance into the process.

3.1.6 But we cannot simply be satisfied with this, as cde Mac Maharaj appears to be:

"We are on the threshold of achieving our lifetime's objectives...We have put national unity and reconciliation on the forefront of the first government...Those achievements are what the people wanted and what the people gave their lives for." (The Star, 1 May 1994)

We do not want stability for its own sake. We did not want elections merely for the pleasure of making our X's. Which brings us to:

3.2 A consensus around the RDP

The second challenge is to build a massive national consensus, not just around stability and against barbarism, but for real reconstruction and development. Today it is this challenge that is, perhaps, most in the foreground. And here, too, we are now beginning to win the battle. Just three or four months ago, there was a major offensive against the Reconstruction and Development Programme. The RDP was said to be completely unrealistic. Today, Derek Keys, FW De Klerk, big business, Armscor, Stals, international governments are all talking RDP language. The sincerity of their commitment to the RDP remains to be tested. There are clearly different agendas at work. Stals, for instance, speaks of "marrying" the NP's old Normative Economic Model and the RDP (as if the two things were not considerably different). The building societies say they support the RDP, but then say that we must distinguish between "effective housing demand" (i.e what is profitably demanded), and "mere need" (i.e. the situation in which the majority find themselves). We must, by persuasion, encouragement and compulsion, gain the co-operation of the private sector and other players in implementing the RDP. But this co-operation cannot simply be taken for granted, and nor can lip-service support be taken at face value.

Which brings us to:

3.3 A mass-driven, ANC-alliance led RDP process

We should certainly not try to monopolise or jealously guard the RDP for ourselves. But the major lesson to be learnt from these past four years is that transition is either mass-driven, or it is empty. Put another way, in seeking to consolidate the above two consensuses, we must at all times struggle to ensure a working class and popular hegemony over them. The struggle for democratisation must be led by working class and popular forces. The RDP must be biased in its objectives and in its manner of implementation (as the document itself says) towards the needs of the majority. Many struggles, from within and without government, lie ahead of us. Without mobilised, politicised mass and community-based formations, we will not be able to drive the democratisation process forward. In particular, the following tasks need to be high-lighted:

3.3.1 A major effort to reorganise and consolidate our mass- and community-based organisations, including the organisational machinery of the party. This effort must be focused around driving the RDP. We need, urgently, to begin to give more concrete content to what we mean by terms like "a mass-driven RDP". We cannot simply leave it at the level of generalities. We need in many practical ways to help people become active participants in the process of transformation;

3.3.2 Struggles for the thorough-going transformation of the state - both in those institutions in which we are weak (eg. in the security forces), and in those in which we are relatively strong (the legislatures);

3.3.3 The all-round co-ordination of Congress forces, in and out of government, and across various sectoral formations (COSATU, SANCO, etc.). We need to use our positions in government to strengthen our mass forces, and vice versa.


The three challenges outlined under 3. are all important. We must avoid the temptation just to emphasise one of them in a one-sided way. If we spend all our time trying to woo ex-SAP generals and top civil servants in the name of stability, we will fail to address the real reasons for instability in our country. If we exaggerate the second challenge, building a happy, all-embracing consensus for the RDP, we might just blind ourselves to the very different class agendas at play. We certainly need to regroup and mobilise social and community based organisations. But nor must we stress this task in a one-sided way. You cannot build houses, let alone trade unions or civics in a Bosnia.

In the coming months, the SACP has an important leading role to play. In developing our ideological outlook, our organisational capacity and our programme of action, we need to be guided by the above considerations.

18th June 1994

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.