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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Making sense of the transition

Title: The Revolution Deferred: The Painful Birth of Post-Apartheid South Africa

Author: Martin Murray

Publisher: Verso, London, 1994

Since 1990 there has been a wide range of articles and books covering an equally wide range of topics on the "new" South Africa. Unfortunately, much of this literature has either come from liberal academics seeking to cash in on the South Africa trend, or it has focused on very narrow areas of interest.

What has not been on offer is an attempt to provide an historically informed and comprehensive overview of the liberation movement and the transition process since 1990. Martin Murray's book is a tentative first step.

Describing the transition as an "unstable equilibrium of compromise", in which much has happened but "not much has changed", Murray poses a series of critical questions that inform his attempt to understand "the possibilities for fundamental transformation of the political and economic structures of South Africa".

Underlying this attempt is the necessary recognition of the major contradiction between the ensuing April 1994 "political revolution" and the reality of enforced power sharing to which it was linked. This, in turn, leads Murray to highlight the centrally important strategies of the two main protagonists in this transition - the ANC-led alliance and large scale capital.

For large scale capital, the aim was to "define South Africa's inequalities as a welfare problem that could be addressed through the redistribution of social surplus rather than as a problem linked with the logic of capitalist production itself'. On the other hand, the ANC-led alliance saw the securing of a new constitution and franchise as a way of establishing a "political platform to launch a much wider assault on the centres of entrenched political power and social wealth".

Murray then places these contending strategies in the context of a post-apartheid political process which has led to a blurring of ideological distinctiveness and produced a pragmatic commonality between the ANC and its erstwhile opponents. Murray argues that this has produced a gradual but distinctive softening of the ANC's anti-capitalist stance through, for example, the effective abandonment of stated ANC policies such as inward industrialisation and nationalisation. The resulting commonality has found its home, he argues, in the "radical sounding slogan, from resistance to reconstruction'", which has "provided the controlling metaphor for moderating voices seeking a modus vivendi with the established white oligarchy".

Moving from this broad critical appraisal of the political processes that have informed the new dispensation, Murray embarks on an extensive discussion of several components central to understanding the terrain of the post-apartheid political economy.

In an impressive display of scholarly research, Murray attempts to describe the myriad of historical and more contemporary realities that lie behind the contradictory character of the "new" South Africa. Detailing both the specifics of apartheid's legacy, and the various responses of the liberation movement and its mass base, the book offers up a rich menu of issues to contemplate: the ongoing structural economic crisis; the distorted inheritance of apartheid planning; the policies of destabilisation and engineered political violence; and the rich history and struggles of trade unions and civics.

The discussion of these issues provides us with a panorama of historical and transitional complexities associated with the birth of post-apartheid South Africa. In this regard, Murray's book goes a consider-able step beyond what has previously been on offer. (Although there are some inexplicable historical lapses, as when he describes the IFP's pre-election Johannesburg "march", orchestrated to buttress the reactionary political agenda of that organisation, as a gathering of "40,000 royalist supporters of King Zwelithini".)

Generally, however, Murray provides a helpful account of events. But it is the character of Murray's corresponding political analysis that fails to fulfil its initial promise. Despite a series of good descriptive accounts, Murray leaves many of the issues hanging. He gives us the general background to the various problems and how the transition affected them, but stops there.

For instance, there is little political analysis of developing ANC strategic thinking before 1990. He tends to explain the pre-1990 ANC simply from a post-1990 perspective, and therefore fails to explain the complexities of the transition, and the complexities of the ANC itself. He presents us with a descriptive account of ideological debates, but these are handled in a containerised way, "the ANC position", "the PAC position", even "the WOSA position". This absolutely leaves out the dynamic internal debates that went on, and still go on, within the ANC-led alliance itself.

His conclusions are that "brokered compromises and concessions" led to an undermining of the "radical aspirations that had previously defined the popular movement". This may, or may not be right, but Murray fails to clinch his argument, offering instead a descriptive perusal of arguments for and against such a view. - DM

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.