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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Winning democracy in South Africa: 'A process not a lightning flash'

By Norm Dixon

The African National Congress in mid-November adopted its approach to the upcoming round of discussions with the de Klerk regime about the resumption of constitutional negotiations. The document adopted by the ANC National Working Committee, Strategic Perspectives, elaborated a number of compromises the liberation movement was prepared to consider "to further the process of democratic change".

Strategic Perspectives was based, in broad outline, on a discussion paper written by South African Communist Party National Chairperson Joe Slovo entitled Negotiations: What room for compromise?. This paper sparked a fierce debate throughout the ANC, its allies in the SACP and the trade unions, and in the pro-ANC press.

Slovo argued that while "the apartheid power block was no longer able to continue ruling in the old way" neither was the ANC "dealing with a defeated enemy and an early revolutionary seizure of power ... could not be realistically posed."

This situation made it necessary to correctly assess the precise balance of forces between "the two leading players" -- the regime and the ANC --, to formulate clearly "bottom line" positions where no compromise was acceptable, and to discuss what compromises -- which would not permanently block the path to non-racial democracy -- are permissible.

Slovo's most controversial proposals were that the ANC consider:

Ø     "A 'a Sunset' clause in the new constitution which provides for compulsory power-sharing for a fixed number of years. This would be subject to proportional representation in the executive combined with decision-making procedures which would not paralyse its functioning."

Ø     "An approach to the restructuring of the civil service (including the SAP [police force] and SADF [armed forces]) which takes into account existing contracts and/or provides for retirement compensation ... Security for existing incumbents in the civil service, and undertakings that will promote reconciliation, will make it exceedingly difficult for the other side to continue blocking the transformation."

The most trenchant criticism of Strategic Perspectives and the Slovo paper were made of the ANC National Working Committee member Pallo Jordan. He described the logic of the documents as "a fundamental departure" from the ANC's strategic objectives and a "deep seated pessimism". It amounted to the "unwarranted elevation of negotiations to the ANC's primary strategy".

This created the "unfortunate outcome of reorienting the movement away from confrontation with the enemy to a search for common ground." The documents "exude a desperation to discover such common ground at all costs, rather than discovering ways of enhancing the he mass of the oppressed as the agency of their own liberation".

Jordan argues the documents comply with regime's aim to make power- sharing mandatory coalitions constitutionally compulsory. The ANC's adoption of the proposals concerning the civil service, the SAP and SADF would be "building its own funeral pyre ... The gravest danger to a transition and the democratic order is precisely such fifth columnists. Every repressive military formation that has ever been coddled by the democratic forces has not had its teeth drawn, instead it has taken courage from such leniency."

In an interview which appeared in the November 20-26 edition of the progressive weekly New Nation Joe Slovo replied to his critics. Below is an abridged version.

Can you briefly outline the premise from which you argue for the need for compromises and a sunset clause in your paper Negotiations -- what room for compromise?

In view of the distorted nature of some the [responses to the paper], I want to clear up a few issues. Firstly, I made it crystal clear that we must unconditionally reject the entrenchment of permanent power- sharing in the constitution.

All I floated was the temporary extension of the period of a government of national unity which we have already accepted for the period after an election when a constitution-making body is still drawing up the constitution.

Secondly, there is absolutely no suggestion of equal power-sharing, which is the innuendo in the criticisms. I talk of a limited time-span executive based on proportional representation and structured in such a way -- I use these very words -- that the minority parties would be unable to paralyse its functioning. In other words, the majority party will provide the dominant direction.

Thirdly -- and this relates to my motivation -- if there is a free and fair election, there can be no doubt that the ANC front will win a majority. We will have won political office. But most of the other levers of power, including the economy, will still be monopolised by the present power bloc. The army, police, civil service, judiciary etc will, broadly speaking, be the same.

We will immediately have to take affirmative action to transform these institutions. But it should be obvious to all that this will be a process not a lightning flash.

Whatever majority we get, we will therefore face immediately and unavoidably be faced with a degree of dual power in which the inherited institutions will, for a while, have enormous potential for destabilisation and counter-revolution.

The primary force to confront this possibility is obviously a mobilised and organised people. But, in the equation of actual struggle, our strength is also related to the weakness of the other at we do does not permanently block an advance to non-racial democratic rule in its full meaning, it is in our interest to consider measures which will help pre-empt the objective of a counter-revolution by reducing its base.

I am of the view that this will be facilitated if, for a fixed period of time, the elected executive gives a place to significant minority parties without undermining the primary role of the majority party.

There is obviously no guarantee that they would not use their minority participation to sabotage the will of the minority. But a combination of mass-driven support and the new balance of forces created by our receiving an elected popular mandate will undoubtedly help meet such manoeuvres. I emphasise, too, that this is not just a question of allaying the fears of the minority -- it is more a question of the survival, consolidation and advance to real democracy.

It is argued that your paper is also premised on the assumption that the ANC is faced with an unfavourable balance of forces -- a balance which weighs heavily in favour of the government. Is this a correct reading?

It is not a correct reading. I believe that the balance of forces is in our favour. That is why the government is on a forced march towards negotiations, which constitutes a historic victory for our liberation struggle. But this is not the same as saying that we have defeated the enemy or that the balance of forces are such that we are in a position to place seizure of power as an immediate item on the agenda.

Should you then not be working towards altering the balance rather than accepting the existing arrangement of forces as static and formulating strategy in that context?

Obviously any serious movement should work ceaselessly to change the balance of forces in its favour -- that process never ends. But we will soon be sitting once again at the negotiating table. We can go there either to scuttle it and to drag it out until the balance of forces are such that we can force a complete surrender. This option involves a risk which our triumphalists choose to ignore. There is no guarantee, however hard we work, that the balance of forces will be more favourable to us in, say, two years time, than it is now.

In projecting ahead we should just not consider our capacity to further weaken de Klerk. What must also feature in our calculation is the rapidly deteriorating economic and social situation for the majority of our people, our ability to maintain mobilisation in this deteriorating situation and the kind of economic base on which we hope the new government will set about the national democratic transformation of South Africa.

If, on the other hand, we are going to the negotiating table not to scuttle it but in the belief that we are strong enough to reach an agreement which will constitute a major leap forward, then surely our strategy must be informed by our assessment of the balance of forces at the given moment. This is not a static approach, it is the essence of our dialectic.

We must surely work out a scenario acceptable to us based on the balance of forces and mobilise political pressure and mass action in support of that scenario, as was so successfully done in the recent period.

Is there an attempt to elevate negotiations to the level of strategy when in fact it is understood as being simply part of a strategy?

This is not just a misreading of my document but it is a demonstrable distortion. I say in so many words in my document that the negotiating table is neither the sole terrain of struggle for power nor the place where it will reach the culminating point. In other words negotiations is only a part of our struggle for our national democratic objectives.

I say that because negotiations contain the real possibility of bringing about a radically transformed political framework in which the liberation movement will occupy significantly more favourable heights from which to advance. That is all negotiations can really achieve.

If an end is put to the tricameral parliament and to its executive and it is replaced by an elected government in which the ANC front has a majority, there will be an obvious shift in the balance of forces in favour of the ANC. And the struggle for the achievement of our objectives will then take place within a framework that is far more favourable.

If the objective of the compromises is to contain forces of destabilisation, would it not be foolhardy to expect that this will happen by simply coopting them into a new administration?

I agree, it would be foolhardy to expect the forces of destabilisation to be contained merely by cooption. I have already referred to the key role of an organised people, but judicious measures which would separate elements in the other camp from the hard-line right can surely and obviously weaken the forces of destabilisation.

This article was posted on the Green Left Weekly Home Page.
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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.