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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Radical as reality

In this comradely rejoinder to Patrick Bond ("RDP: site of socialist struggle", AC 2nd quarter 1994), Hein Marais agrees that socialists need to defend the Reconstruction and Development Programme. However, he argues, this requires more than a textual reading of the RDP, it calls also for a broader understanding of the context within which we find ourselves.

Lenin, according to a Romanian poet sharing his table in a Zurich cafe 77 years ago, ended their conversation one day with this punchline: "One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself." {1}

It's a stirring, resolute statement that seems to spur an unfaltering and unflinching radicalism. But read closely, it turns out to be more complex; mixing agitation and prudence, Lenin was counselling a radicalism that rests on a lucid and frank understanding of reality.

Patrick Bond's article ["RDP: site of socialist struggle"] is a valuable attempt to elaborate a radical vision for the Left. Correctly, he reminds us that the RDP has become a pastiche of agendas and strategies; as a kind of road map towards transformation it pretends to lead divergentsocial forces to their respective promised lands. The RDP's meaning lies in the eyes of its beholders.

The RDP is not "ours" any longer; it is a site of struggle. What are the stakes in this struggle? In political-economic terms it is about determining the nature of a new growth path, i.e. a set of economic and social policies that place society on a particular course of development. The popular classes demand that it be based on substantial redistribution of resources, opportunity and power - such that the trends that divide our society between small enclaves of privilege and an impoverished majority are broken. The RDP obviously does not encompass such a venture; but potentially it forms a significant element. The priority of the SA capitalist class, meanwhile, is a growth path that achieves a new sustained cycle of accumulation - which implies different priorities in the RDP. The result is an RDP that is "less what it is, than what it might become", as Canadian marxist John Saul has noted {2}. Helpfully, Bond excavates those aspects of the RDP in which we "can take heart" - the bridgeheads or toeholds it presents for "an eventual transition to socialism". These are important pointers towards developing a cogent Left strategy to push the transformation project beyond the limits envisioned by capital.

However, and for whatever reasons, Bond omits from his essay a crucial element: an assessment of the context - the reality - within which we are engaging. It's as a comradely rejoinder, then, that I'd like to add a few thoughts that might assist a better understanding and a more effective engagement in the struggle to transform our country.

The RDP does not exist on its own terms. It is an aspect of the broader struggles to determine the shape of a post-apartheid South Africa. This means that subjecting the RDP to a kind of content analysis reveals much less about its character than Bond allows for. Funda-mentally, the RDP's potential to become the core of a genuine transformation project depends on the impact of decisions taken elsewhere in the system. Already, they include:

     The policies agreed to by the ANC in the IMF Letter of Intent mean that economic growth takes priority over redistribution. The letter has not been made public, but according to media reports {3} it committed the new government to reduce the Budget deficit to 6% of GDP, not to increase corporate taxes, to cut the civil service wage bill, to continue tight monetary policies, to pursue policies that combine wage restraint and training, to foster investment and promote employment, to rationalise tariff barriers and phase out non-tariff barriers. This severely limits the state funds available for redistribution under the RDP;

     Key decision-making powers are left with a Reserve Bank that is insulated from political "meddling" (one of the key compromises of the political settlement). These powers include setting bank and interest rates, dealing with Balance of Payments (BoP) matters (by, for instance, applying for IMF standby facilities), controlling inflation and intervening in the international value of the Rand. This institution responds to and services the generalised needs of the SA capitalist class. Are there mechanisms to bring its decisions in line with a growth path aimed at breaking the insider / outsider trends it has helped establish?

     The property clause in the interim constitution virtually rules out expropriation as one way to assist redistribution. In particular it subjects our land reform programme to market forces (following explicit World Bank advice - Bond is wrong to claim that the Bank in general "will be kept at bay"). The limited funds available for land redistribution will now be spent on acquiring - at market prices - land and on providing back-up and support to newly established small farmers;

     The backbone of the new state re-mains the old civil services - of the central apartheid state and the bantustans. These inherited institutions are adapting unevenly to the new order. In many cases their performance is fitful and unreliable; in several it is obstructive. The liberation movement has succeeded in entering the top ranks but is handicapped by a shortage of skilled personnel to occupy the crucial middle echelons. Training of newcomers will take months, even years, to enable a "spring-cleaning" To occur, assuming that becomes politically viable. Meanwhile implementation of the RDP depends on the judgments and performances of this army of civil servants;

     The federal system. Again, a content analysis of the interim constitution gives little warning of just how federal the new SA actually is. Development and reconstruction in a post-apartheid SA has always been conceptualised as a national under-taking. But the provincial governments have lost no time asserting and attempting to extend their powers. Ironically, it is the ANC premiers who are most vigorously trying to deepen the federal character of the political system; in some provinces these demands verge on becoming confederalist. (The remnants of the old order - NP in the Western Cape, IFP in Natal/Kwazulu - are happy to slipstream behind these new converts to federalism.) The consequences could be grave. How do we prevent the reconstruction and development process from becoming "balkanised" in ways that entrench regional disparities and inequality, and sabotage the nation-building project? Recall the warnings from analysts like Samir Amin about the dangers in combining a federalist political system with an economic strategy that turns the economy outward despite its vulnerabilities - "the two main ingredients of the political economy of Yugoslavia" {4}.

These constraints that weigh in on the RDP are not insurmountable but they are formidable. And they shape the scope and the character of the programme in fundamental ways. Underestimated or ignored, they could reduce the RDP into becoming the latest instalment of the socio-economic reform processes started in the 1980s by the NP.

Somehow the Left has to contest those decisions. However, this is where matters take another twist.

Fateful as those decisions might turn out to be, it is misleading to dismiss or ridicule them as sheer sellouts or errors of judgment. Taken as a whole, they express the class compromise upon which the entire transition rests. We can therefore not isolate economic policies or the RDP from the political settlement.

This is not to say that each and every compromise decision was inevitable, nor that it remains intrinsic in the transition and therefore unchallengeable. But two points deserve some reflection:

(i) Right now these compromises the transition - the conundrum for the Left is to determine how and which of these decisions can be changed without dismantling the transition itself, and

(ii) The compromises are the outcome of struggles in which the Left participated - how is it that, at this triumphant point in our history, we were unable to tilt the terms of the class comprofavour of the popular classes?

This sort of enquiry is discomfiting but essential. It demands that we take stock - with honesty, courage and clarity - of where we are: organisationally, strategically and conjuncturally.

This brings us to another aspect of the context that weighs in on the RDP. A set of principles, of ideological pillars, prop up the transition:

conciliation, assimilation and, centrally, inclusion. The transition is defined by them (most obviously in the decision to set up a government of national unity).

The struggles to transform society have to be fought with these terms of the transition in mind. On the one hand they threaten to limit the scope of change. Unless the transition is to be distinguished mainly by the reconciliation of political elites and the induction of a layer of Africans into privileged ranks, these terms cannot go unchallenged and unmodified. On the other hand, the popular classes must discover to what extent the terms can be challenged and stretched, without scuttling the transition.

Together, these principles or terms mark a momentous paradigm shift. Instead of the new political order triumphing over and replacing the old, it is being assimilated into it (the state is the clearest evidence of this). Instead of conflict, conciliation has become the driving dynamic; the transition proceeds on the basis of mechanisms (corporatist structures, social accords, etc.) aimed at reconciling and transforming conflicting interests into inclusive policies and programmes. Instead of a society formally structured along lines that divide and exclude, the principle of inclusion holds sway.

This boils down to the fact that, for the first time in our country's history, we are witnessing an attempt to launch a hegemonic project {5} that seeks to transform society on the basis of inclusion. Until now South African society has been defined and organised as an ideologically exclusive system. By meeting racial and other criteria a minority of people was guaranteed access to power, privilege and opportunity the rest were excluded violently and quite literally (into townships, squatter camps, bantustans). At least since the Freedom Charter was passed, the national liberation struggle has aimed to achieve an ideologically inclusive system. There is now one SA, with one body politic, and we are all deemed equals in it.

The motto of the new South Africa is "We're in this thing together". Bond refers disparagingly to calls for a "national endeavour"To implement the RDP. But these notions of "national endeavour" and "common interests" cannot be so easily dismissed. They capture the essence of a hegemonic project that is being administered by the ANC-in-government but is shaped in crucial ways by the capitalist class. And once again, the RDP and the transformation process in general cannot be divorced from that project. Which is why Jay Naidoo talks of the RDP as a partnership of "everyone ... every organisation, every opinion-making group that can contribute ... that's the protection this government needs to ensure that if anything goes wrong, it will be our collective responsibility" {6}.

In class society, of course, the notion of "common interests" is neither neutral or innocent - it is an ideological device used to generalise and attribute the priorities and interests of one class to all of society. "What'sgood for Anglo is good for South Africa."The ruling class is predicating the RDP (and transformation in general) on a set of "common interests" That work to its advantage and to the popular classes' disadvantage: prioritise economic growth, minimise "disruptions" and instability, establish attractive climates for foreign investment, narrow the scope of radical measures and so on.

The popular classes and the Left - have failed to match those breakthroughs. Keeping "basic needs" at the rhetorical centre of the RDP and inserting "decommodifying" options into it are inadequate responses. We have failed to invest in a much clearer and more encompassing fashion in this hegemonic project (and consequently the RDP) with elements that reflect our interests more strongly. Why?

We are at a decisive crossroads. The stakes are too high for us to proceed on the basis of casual assumptions and misunderstandings. We need to pause and take stock.

How do we respond to the paradigm shifts of the transition? How have our strategies been adapted to current realities? What are our organisational strengths and weaknesses? On what political and ideological bases do we reconstitute ourselves? What is the character of the new state? How do we effectively engage with it and in it?

A revitalised praxis demands a critical assessment of where we are at and a clear-headed understanding of the reality we are engaging in. None of the negative constraints and erosions I have noted are necessarily unbeatable or unstoppable, but to counter them we need to understand them.


1. Cited by Alexander Cockburn in "Radical as Reality", Robin Blackburn (ed.) After the Fall: The failure of communism and the future of socialism, 1992, Verso, London.

2. John Saul, "The RDP: Two Reviews", Southern Africa Report. (WIP supplement), vol.9, no.5, July

1994, p.40.

3. See Vishnu Padayachee, "Can the RDP survive the IMF?" Southern Africa Report July 1994, p.26.

4. Samir Amin, "SA in the global system", Work in Progress no.87, Feb. 1993, p.11.

5. See Mike Morris and Padayachee, P., 1989, "Hegemonic Projects, Accumulation Strategies and State Reform Policy in SA", Labour, Capital and Society, vol.22, no. 1; and Morris, M., 1993, "The legacy of the past", conference paper, Prague.

6. Cited in Cape Times, 4 July 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.