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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

The RDP - A site for socialist struggle

After trying to dismiss it, many of our opponents are now paying lipservice to the ANC-alliance's Reconstruction and Development Programme. So what kind of programme is it? Is it a programme for socialists? Patrick Bond argues that the RDP can be taken off in a number of directions. But, he concludes, it contains real socialist potential, provided we treat it as a guideline, not a bible.

The ANC/Alliance/MDM Re-construction and Development Programme - the new government's main policy frame-work - is being interpreted in many different ways. It is baffling, but somehow we must make sense of the following:

     In his first post-election interview (Sunday Times, May 1), President Nelson Mandela remarks that the RDP document contains "not a word about nationalisation" - but it appears that neither Mandela nor inter-viewer Ken Owen read as far as page 80, where the RDP cites the need for "increasing the public sector in strategic areas through, for example, nationalisation."

     The ANC's recently-named Labour Minister, Tito Mboweni, "declares triumphantly" to the Economist (February 5) that minimum wages and nationalisation get no mention in the RDP (wrong on both counts).

     Already a month into his new job (6 June), Defence Minister Joe Modise advances the extraordinary claim that Armscor "has the capability to participate meaningfully in the Reconstruction and Development Programme."

     In the wake of the election, hawkish National Party Western Cape Premier (and former Law and Order Minister) Hernus Kriel, KwaZulu/ Natal Inkatha premier Frank Mdlalose, and Gencor chief executive Marinus Daling (one of SA's most irresponsible capitalists) all endorse the RDP. So do a variety of ministers, parliamentarians and other business elites at national and provincial levels who have never cracked the RDP book, much less ever considered the logistical difficulties of meeting the nation's basic needs.

     Similarly, Eskom Chief Executive Allen Morgan points out his desire to support the RDP in a Weekly Mail and Guardian interview (May 13-19), but Morgan rules out the cross-subsidisation from rich whites to poor blacks which is explicitly recommended by the RDP (WM&G interviewer Reg Rumney was silent). Morgan subsequently announces his intention to raise foreign loans for one third of Eskom's mass electrification projects, a financing route explicitly prohibited by the RDP.

Whether blame for such mystification should be levelled at pliant politicians or gullible journalists is beside the point. In short, so much murkiness characterises interpretation of the RDP that it may be helpful to review the deeper ideological channels through which the ideologically-motivated commentary swirls.

There are at least three ways to read the RDP: from the Left (whose perspective we can consider "socialist"), the Centre ("social democratic") and the Right ("neo-liberal"). Here we can consider those aspects of the RDP in which organisations and individuals which support traditional Left values, and in particular an eventual transition to socialism, can take heart.

To do so is to take the risk of la-belling positions which are, in fact, extremely fluid at present. A frenzy of alliance-formation continues between adherents of different ideologies - or sometimes simply between individuals who bear no particular class interest but who are operating in a self-interested and often erratic manner - and therefore the overlays between neo-liberal and social democratic, and social democratic and socialist, are substantial.

The RDP of the Right and Centre

There is no denying that the RDP has been deeply penetrated by traditionally conservative ideas, such as maintaining excessively strict limits on state expenditure generally (with a projected stagnation in the education budget in particular), the promotion of international competitiveness, and the endorsement of an independent Reserve Bank (insulated from democratic policy inputs).

Moreover, what is not in the RDP is also revealing. There is a profound failure to grapple with the challenges posed by the private property rights of the constitution, especially with respect to land reform and anti-eviction rights. And the complete lack of attention to monetary policy and the failure to protest the scheduled onerous repayment of the R62 billion apartheid foreign debt all imply that the exceptionally anti-social, sado-monetarist policies presently followed by the Church Street branch of the Broederbond (the Reserve Bank) are acceptable. For this neglect, Governor Chris Stals probably sleeps easier.

The RDP's fiscal policy (government spending), monetary policy (control of interest rates and money supply), and trade policy are all acceptable to neo-liberal watchdogs like the IMF. Even industrial policy is peppered with visions of "postfordist" competitiveness that neo-liberals also often endorse. In sum, in key areas of economic management, it is clear that conservative principles prevailed in the drafting of the RDP.

Yet, when all is said and done, the RDP is much more centrist that it is conservative. The broad presumption is that when the market fails, as it so often does in South Africa, the state will step in to both force capital to follow a long-term rational, non-racial capitalist logic, and to facilitate access to basic goods and services, to environmental and consumer protection, or to industrial and technological development. This is no real challenge to the market, but rather an affirmation of its hegemonic role in the ordering of society, such that the state operates to lubricate the market.

Indeed social democracy in this spirit pervades the document. Calls for a "national endeavour" to implement the RDP have been made by ANC leaders, including those of the Left like RDP Minister Jay Naidoo and Deputy Finance Minister Alec Erwin. In the SA Labour Bulletin (Jan-Feb 1994), Erwin also explains the RDP using surprisingly orthodox, modernisation theory language: "The programme to meet basic needs will in fact open new opportunities for the private sector to take up a wide range of economic activities, and for market forces to come into play in areas where they never operated."

The primary problem with Erwin's philosophical position is that the private sector has already been playing a very substantial role in many basic needs markets (housing and taxi transport are easily the two most significant, consuming more than a quarter of the average town-ship household budget). The result has been, by all accounts, disastrous. Indeed it is the need to transcend the limits of the market - for example in housing and local economic development - that led to RDP commitments of new state subsidies (in the case of housing, nearly four times present levels). Certainly centrists and rightists are by no means confident about the ANC's capacity to direct subsidies in a manner beneficial to capital accumulation.

However, it is for another reason that, what would otherwise appear to be an ideal social contract, may yet be spurned by big business. That reason is the broader crisis of South African capitalism, which will continue into the present recovery and beyond, and grow worse as the international law of value bears down on this country's vulnerable industrial sector. Capital has, in the process, lost a chance at developing an expansive "class-interest," which is reorganisation of business interests.

Nevertheless, the existing socio-economic forums, in which the RDP places excessive faith (notwithstanding a call for their restructuring), will probably remain the domain of the think-tanks of capital (the Urban Foundation's hegemony over the World Bank National Housing Forum is one tragic example). There may arise an opportunity to shed these forums' neo-liberal influence (the UF's toilet-fetish, to the detriment of real housing subsidies, for instance), but the centrist spirit of the RDP is more likely to result in their continuation in a conservatising, technocratic mode.

However, ordinary workers will gradually learn that through the National Economic Forum, COSATU staff endorsed the GATT global free-trade agreement in a way "that must make us unique." Trade and Industry Minister Trevor Manuel proudly told his Atlanta audience at the US-SA investment conference in June. Certainly it is unique capitulation, that trade union movements across the world regar GATT as a licence for multinational corporations to loot and pillage. It is a particularly disappointing development, given World Bank projections of R1,5 billion in annual lose South African trade revenues due to GATT by 2002

In the wake of strategic blunders the attraction of corporatist pursuits in such forums will surely wane.The restructuring of industry should then lead workers, their leaders and their staff to examine how their output can become much more closely linked to "use values" - ranging from basic needs consumption goods to the capital goods (machinery) which are unnecessarily imported to South Africa - rather than the "exchange values" which the doctrine of international competitiveness insists must rule economic life.

A Left defence of the RDP

In Work in Progress and the first quarter issue of The African Communist, leading SACP intellectuals have defended the RDP as a Left project. Although such a defence is at a nascent level, the central ideas certainly bear consideration. There seem to be two mutually-supportive ways to defend the RDP from the Left: the "decommodification" of basic needs goods, and through potentially socialist reforms posited sporadically within the RDP,

A) Decommodification of basic goods

The argument for a Left reading of the RDP by Phillip Dexter in WIP (Feb-March 1994) is based on the notion that by "gradually infusing the RDP with socialist ideals and practices a socialist programme for SA can be developed." Dexter points in only one really concrete direction: "We need to find ways to ensure alternatives to capitalist markets; for example, by decommodifying certain resources and services." He promotes "communal access to economic resources. Housing, for instance, could be provided through associations, and be offered as non-sellable property rather than rented or privately-owned units."

The RDP specifies precisely this in the section on housing: "Mechanisms (such as time limits on resale, or compulsory repayment of subsidies upon transfer of property) must be introduced to prevent speculation and downward raiding." Indeed this decommodification process is viewed by socialist housing experts as a necessary component, not only of a new mode of production, but even of a social democratic-style solution to the low-income housing crisis. Without the mechanisms which the RDP demands, housing will be bought and sold subject only to financial means, and more privileged class fractions within the townships and rural areas will quickly crowd out the poorer beneficiaries of the subsidies, leading to landlordism and "downward raiding." (This is certainly the international experience with low-cost housing subsidies, and has already been noted - by even the World Bank - as the logical outcome of the neo-liberal Independent Development Trust site-and-service subsidy.) In turn, the insider-outsider dichotomy which has been growing so rapidly since neo-liberal economic policies were adopted by the NP in the late 1980s, will be exacerbated.

At a different level, Jeremy Cronin (The African Communist, first quarter, 1994) has advanced an embryonic argument for a "recasting of our theoretical approach (to) help us to understand how we should engage, as socialists, in the RDP," Such a recasting Cronin attributes to COSATU Wits regional secretary Langa Zita, who discusses the imposition of a "working class political economy upon the political economy of capital." As Cronin points out, Marx referred to the formation of co-operatives and the Ten Hours' Bill to shorten the length of the working day in these terms.

Naturally, each reform merits analysis on its own terms, in order to gauge the impact of the specific reform on the workings of the capitalist system, to forge alliances and develop campaigns with such knowledge, and to put this in the context of the struggle for new relations of production more generally. We must be very careful of supporting any reform. COSATU, for example, has been strongly influenced by those calling for a variety of "post-Fordist" reforms. Yet it is very difficult for working-class activists and intellectuals alike to project anything of a socialist future from such "Japanised" capitalist production processes ("flexibility," quality circles, team concept, just-in-time, exportled manufacturing growth, etc).

Such approaches to the present global capitalist crisis are far too conciliatory to capital's own restructuring agenda of speed-up and retrenchment. In contrast, Enoch Godongwana's call (SALB, July-August 1993) for "restructuring which is informed by a socialist perspective and which is characterised by working class politics and democratic practice and accountability ofleadership" is far closer to the traditions of labour. At the very least, such a perspective must be based on at least two central pillars, namely a much more militant class struggle approach to shopfloor and community struggles than we have been experiencing the past few years, and - as noted in COSATU's NEF failure - a turn from exchange-values to use-values in our understanding of economic restructuring. Alongside other "substantially socialist" reforms, both pillars are potentially strengthened by the RDP.

B) Substantially socialist reforms

Consider four areas of potentially non-reformist reforms. First, the Left can take satisfaction visionary arguments won the day in noting the RDP's primary commitment to meeting the basic needs of all South Africans. In nearly every sector, some of the best technical experts of the ANC and MDM debated the merits of extremely detailed proposals for the RDP. In most cases the more visionary, ambitious arguments won the day. The main reason for this, of course, is the legacy of concrete struggles which have been waged over decades to win basic needs goals. These struggles cannot, of course, relax, and it is for this reason that the RDP gives a high priority to maintaining capacity within civil society.

Second, the Left can build upon several specific foundations which may one day form the basis for deeper socio-economic transformation. These include a new Housing Bank which can blend subsidies with workers' pension funds (protected against repayment risk) to get low-cost loans; a call to change (by law) the directors of the major mutual insurance companies, Old Mutual and Sanlam; the decisive commitment to reproductive rights, which will empower many women (the RDP is generally very strong in pointing out women's existing oppression, and fair-to-middling on proposed solutions); potential anti-trust attacks on corporate power; and other challenges to the commanding heights of capitalism, racism and patriarchy.

Third, the Left can relax, ever so slightly, that the World Bank (the maximum enemy of poor and working people, and of the Left RDP) will be kept at bay for all intensive purposes. In areas where RDP programmes do not directly contribute to raising foreign exchange - such as housing, health, welfare, education, land reform and the like - the RDP promises that foreign loans will not be taken out. Reasons for this include the high cost of such loans (given rand devaluation), the need to earn extra foreign exchange to re-pay them (since they are denominated in hard currency) and the neo-lib-eral conditionality which typically attaches to them. An anti-imperialist spirit can even be detected in the following passage (pp.145-146):

"The RDP must use foreign debt financing only for those elements of the programme that can potentially increase our capacity for earning foreign exchange. Relationships with international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund must be conducted in such a way as to protect the integrity of domestic policy formulation and promote the interests of the South African population and the economy. Above all, we must pursue policies that enhance national self-sufficiency and enable us to reduce dependence on international financial institutions. Further, we must introduce measures to ensure that foreign governmental and non-governmental aid supports the RDP."

Fourth, the Left can note with pride the commitment to a strong but slim state which will continually empower civil society through both opportunities to input into major decisions, and through capacity-building. The chapter on "Democratising State and Society" is a major victory for the Left, since "deepening democracy" (that overused phrase) now takes on a very weighty content. What is being advanced is popular direct democracy ("community control," "people-driven development," etc.), through which people take control of those vital aspects of their lives which were previously influenced far more by state and market. The RDP's discussion of bourgeois democracy, in which a semi-representative parliamentary system speaks (and acts and controls) in the name of the people, pales in significance.

The RDP, civil society and socialism - in South Africa and the world

In sum, to begin to substantiate Cronin's argument, for "the embryonic emergence of socialism (the political economy of labour) in the interstices of capitalist production", is to combine these four areas of substantially socialist reform with the prospect of using the RDP to decommodify - and hence more efficiently, equitably and sustainably supply - the basic goods people require to lead a dignified life. This combination can begin to occur under conditions of more rapid consolidation of a popular, progressive state, of an often incoherent capitalist class, and of continued strengthening of the mass organs which brought the progressive party to power,

Under such conditions, the RDP can act as a guide plan (not a bible) for progressive policy-makers in the state and for radical advocacy groups in civil society. There are dangers, however: the less progressive forces within the state may ignore the RDP or actually change it fundamentally. But the opportunities for the Left to gain sustenance from the RDP in three arenas of struggle are promising:

a) the struggle between labour/ communities/ other exploited groups (in alliance with the state, occasion-ally) and capital;

b) the struggle between the exploited groups (in alliance with the progressive fraction of the state) and the less progressive fraction of the state; and c) the struggle within the exploited groups to set up new relations of production (with plenty of financial assistance from the state where needed) within the decay of the old relations of production.

The stress here is building a Left project not only from the standpoint of organised labour, but from the base of the more advanced social and community movements. How does such thinking correspond with other arguments advanced in the name of socialism?

There is probably no more active a proponent of the road to socialism via "working-class civil society" than Mzwanele Mayekiso, writing in The African Communist, Work in Progress, Southern African Review of Books and elsewhere. But leading WOSA ideologue Neville Alexander also emphatically endorses just such an approach in his most recent book:

"Even though we have no reason to be san guine and simplistic about thecontested terrain of "civil society," the existence of which in no way can guarantee a successful process of democratisation, it seems to me that it is in this sphere that we need to concentrate our efforts. In the end, only the independence of these mass formations - their financial independence, their commitment to non-sectarian practices and to the principles of participatory democracy - will carry us over the period of potential erosion of the gains that were made in the seventies and the eighties." (Some are More Equal than Others, Cape Town, Buchu Books, p.92.)

This line of argument corresponds to an emerging international realisation that social movements do have a potentially radical approach which is crucial to the kinds of socialist reforms that the RDP makes possible. In turn this implies a rejection of state power in the short-term, until such projects are more firmly established and have built their international linkages, according to Immanuel Wallerstein (and several other contributors to the two most recent volumes of the Socialist Register):

"One element must surely be a definitive disjuncture with the past strategy of achieving social transformation via the acquisition of state power. It is not that assuming governmental authority is never useful, but that it is almost never transformatory. The assumption of state power should be regarded as a necessary defensive tactic under specific circumstances in order to keep out ultra-right repressive forces. But state power should be recognised as a pis aller [a cul de sac], which always risks a relegitimation of the existing world order." ("The collapse of liberalism," in R. Miliband and L. Panitch (eds.), Socialist Register 1992: New World Order?, London: Merlin Press, pp.108-109.)

But such a strategy is of limited use without a sense of the urgency of a current change of direction in political economy, at neighbour-hood, at rural village, at urban and at higher scales. Leo Panitch and Ralph Miliband chart a broader course not in the least inconsistent with the Left's RDP:

"An approach distant both from ultra-leftism on the one hand and from the politics of accommodation of social democracy on the other will need to be elaborated and developed, given clear and relevant, short-term and longer-term policy meaning and institutional focus. This approach entails an involvement in immediate struggles over a multitude of current issues: in the current moment of economic crisis the most important must be bold programmes for economic recovery which are oriented to employing people directly in the expansion and improvement of the public infrastructure [and in South Africa's case, basic needs goods]... While no such programme will allow one country to escape by itself from the economic crisis, this programme could mitigate the effects of the crisis, and lay the basis for a more ecologically sound, socially just, productive economy in the future. It would contribute, moreover, to giving people a sense that something can be done about the crisis, which is the key to further popular mobilisation in even more radical directions." ("The new world order and the socialist agenda," in Socialist Register 1992, pp.22-23.)

The fusion of social movementenergy and traditional working-class movement (and party) political programmes is by no means impossible, as the RDP proves. Indeed, at a more philosophical level Michael Lowy confirms that:

"It is from the fusion between the international socialist, democratic and anti-imperialist tradition of the labour movement (still much alive among revolutionaries of various tendencies, radical trade-unionists, left-socialists, etc.) and the new universalist culture of social movements like ecology, feminism, anti-racism and the Third World-solidarity that the internationalism of tomorrow will rise. This tendency may be a minority now, but it is nevertheless the seed of a different future and the ultimate guarantee against barbarism. ("Why nationalism?," in R. Miliband and L. Panitch (eds.), Socialist Register 1993: Real Problems, False Solutions, London: Merlin Press, p.138.)

If so, then the RDP has not merely national significance, but its socialist current must run ever deeper, and must be internationalised by the advanced cadres of working class civil society, particularly elsewhere in the Third World. Only then can the bumper-sticker idea, "thinking globally, acting locally," graduate from a slogan to a real programme for international socialism.

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.