Raymond Suttner: Decisions/concessions made by the Mandela-led ANC during the transition towards post-apartheid South Africa

The transcript and interview with Professor Sampie Terreblanche  (link at the end of this article) provides insights into the problems of the economic trajectory that post -apartheid South Africa has chosen.  Part of his argument relates to secret discussions allegedly held between Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the ANC with Harry Oppenheimer and other representatives of big capital.  It is claimed that these discussions led the ANC to moderate its stance away from socialism  towards a process, which fell into line with the Washington consensus.  Professor Terreblanche speaks of conditionalities attached to an IMF loan, and signs of a shift from ‘growth through redistribution,’ deriving broadly from Keynes, to ‘redistribution through growth’, (a trickle down approach) evident in the ANC 1992 document, Ready to Govern.

At that time, the early 1990s I did hear that various members of leadership were being entertained at some or other places that were associated with Anglo American. I was never invited and cannot say that the rumours were true or false, but there were such reports going the rounds.

It is certain that Nelson Mandela had meetings with big capital because he was trying to understand the fundamentally changing world economic situation, as we all were.  He changed his stance on nationalisation from that announced on his release from prison. This was in line with the general rethinking that the ANC and its allies had undergone, drawing lessons from experience with nationalisation in a number of countries, and arguing even prior to Mandela’s release in the constitutional guidelines of 1988 for a ‘mixed economy.’   This was not through secret meetings with capital or a departure from socialism, for the ANC had never declared itself for socialism.  It was a home for a broad range of tendencies.  On being unbanned it confronted a completely changed domestic and international conjuncture and struggled to develop appropriate ways of realising its overall vision, which is not to say that there was consensus over these, within the ANC and its allies.  It was both a question of understanding and also arguing over direction.

That is why a close reading of Mandela’s statements of the time may sometimes appear contradictory.  This is because he was willing, if he found it necessary, to change an approach which was found wanting, as he came to understand the difficult context in which he had to act.  Nelson Mandela was briefed by the economists in the leadership on this changed international environment and he expressed his shock at the difficulties that were to be navigated.  In this context, and in good faith, Mandela presided over decisions intended to address the difficult terrain that was confronted.  He saw the decisions that were taken as the best way to realise the overall transformatory goals of the ANC.

Many of us considered some of these steps to represent a retreat from transformatory objectives, in particular the introduction of GEAR.  It should be noted, however, that the adoption of GEAR and its propagation by Mandela did not signify a desire to make SA a colony of USA nor that he was bought off by sections of capital.   While Mandela was fallible, he would not cower before South African or US capital.

I was in the ANC leadership at this time and was not part of any secret talks that may have taken place and the results of these talks, real or alleged, were not brought before the national executive.   I therefore do not believe, as Ronnie Kasrils seems to suggest with regard to an IMF loan that all who were in leadership bear responsibility. I do not accept responsibility for anything of which I was not a part and about which I did not even hear at the time, when it allegedly happened.

I was head of political education from 1990 to1994 and I interpreted part of my duties as being to facilitate discussions where documents were in the process of preparation on a range of areas of policy, including the economy, media, culture and questions like pluralism.  Amongst the people who I remember being involved were the late Stan Nkosi, Libby Lloyd, Andrew Boraine and Mandla Nkomfe. They were part of subcommittees that held discussions and prepared documentation as a contribution towards developing policy.  But we were naïve for while we had a range of meetings, what we were undertaking did not seem to feed into any process that actually decided on policy.

When the 1992 conference was held for which Ready to Govern was presented I was surprised at the slim volume summarising policies in general. I remember raising this with Khetso Gordhan, then a member of Department of Economic Policy (DEP) who I think was instrumental in the development of this document. I said that I had thought the conference would try to develop more detailed policies not the generalised formulations of Ready To Govern.  He seemed to think that I was impractical and naive.  While this may be a separate question from whether that document suggested a change of direction in the economic sphere, as Sampie Terreblanche indicates, it was part of a process whereby the constitutional structures and membership of the organisation were no longer involved in the production of policy documents.  While policy conferences continue to be held, these generally bear a very limited resemblance to outcomes in government.  There was already then an increasing specialisation that presaged what would happen in government, which made it difficult to empower those who were not versed in intricate economic and also constitutional questions.  And as anyone knows who attends such conferences it is very hard to try to redraft a prepared booklet like Ready to Govern in the few days of a conference.

The adoption of GEAR in 1996 was also through a process outside of constitutional structures of the ANC.  This made me and many others unhappy, and I expressed that at an NEC meeting in Bellville. But this represented a different phenomenon. A new relationship developed after 1994, which was not discussed but meant a division of labour between the ANC and the ANC led government, where the latter had the power and often needed to take decisions without passing them through the ANC constitutional structures.

In retrospect, I recognise that it is an inevitable consequence of government that a new relationship between organisational structures and government had to be negotiated.  Many were outraged that a government minister could announce a policy as controversial as GEAR and declare it non-negotiable without it passing through the NEC. I raised this at an NEC meeting, if I recall it was in Bellville and Tito Mboweni claimed it was not true that it had not been considered by the ANC.  The ANC subcommittee on economic affairs did apparently see the document, but after it was drafted. As I understand it they were not given the opportunity to make input, but simply briefed.

What is interesting is that both those who favoured GEAR and those who opposed it operated on the assumption that the policy ought to have passed through ANC structures, but differed over whether or not this had happened.

All of this I believe indicates a number of elements in the development of SA democracy.  Many of us had different expectations over what would happen after 1994.  I came from the popular power period where we believed that elections would be only one element of popular involvement in politics and that there would be a continuous place for mass creativity. This orientation was not restricted to those who had been in the UDF but was shared by some of the former exiled leadership, notably Chris Hani.

In other words, in this approach, the role of the masses was not understood purely as oppositional, a type of battering ram to break down resistance of government to this or that.  The lessons of the 1980s were that people could play a constructive role in their own lives, supplementing the work of a progressive and transformatory government, independent of and sometimes connected with organs of government.

The developments around GEAR indicated that the ANC itself while described as a mass organisation, was no longer the driving force of the ‘revolution’.  As in the rest of Africa and the rest of the world, power was ceded by popular organisations to leadership and within government towards the presidency.

What was needed then was a discussion of the character of a changing relationship between the popular element, manifested inside and outside the ANC, and government.  I now realise that a government cannot function in relationship to its organisational constituency, as it may have done prior to 1990 or 1994.  A government has to govern and sometimes take swift decisions.  But that does not mean that the membership and others who wish to be active citizens should not have an important and continuing, active political role.  How that is realised needs discussion.  Obviously the present political environment is not propitious for that.


2 thoughts on “Raymond Suttner: Decisions/concessions made by the Mandela-led ANC during the transition towards post-apartheid South Africa

  1. This is a good piece, thank you Raymond, but I also think we cannot assess any of the politics of that time, or now, without looking at the difference in leadership styles and expectations between South Africans who experienced the internal mass democratic movement, and the militarist functioning of the ANC in exile.
    The exiles accepted commands, we didn’t, we negotiated, argued, consulted … the MDM was democratic, the exile wing was autocratic. Those differences continue to plague, and disempower, democracy in South Africa today. You refer to it vaguely in the 12th and 13th paras – I’d be interested in you exploring this more directly.
    GEAR was an Mbeki-led project it disrespected Cosatu and redistribution in a manner that echoes Zuma’s efforts to demobilize Cosatu now.
    I think our failures then, and now, were that we idolized the exile movement and failed to see how superior the internal MDM was, and so we have forfeited much.
    Also with regard to discussions with capital, Anglo etc. Well, I suppose those began with the meetings at Dakar, etc. but too, more importantly, with those led by Cyril Ramaphosa who then headed NUM and big capital in the late 80s and early 90s.

    • Thank for this, Charlene. I think that the democratic quality of the 1980s was something unique in SA history, going even further than the 1950s with the popular power period. I would hesitate to draw a sharp dichotomy between internal and external, because there were also undemocratic, commandist tendencies inside. This was especially so in the MDM period, i.e. after the UDF was banned, thousands were in jail and the link between the MDM leadership and the organisations was severed. The MDM period from about 1988 is very different from the period of popular power. If you look at Michael Neocosmos’s work on this blog you will see his argument. We also need to ask why, many of the people who came from the popular tradition (supported, as it happens, by many who were in exile) got absorbed into a project that left the people outside, watching. I do not see Dakar as so significant, but who knows whether or not deals were struck? I am not sure.

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