SAR, Vol 12 No 1, November 1996
THE SOUTH AFRICAN TRANSITION:
MORE TROUBLE THAN IT LOOKS
BY MARTIN J. MURRAY
Martin J. Murray teaches Sociology at SUNY Binghamton and is the author of, among numerous other books on South Africa, The Revolution Deferred: The Painful Birth of Post-Apartheid South Africa (London and New York: Verso, 1995).
The long and complicated transition to representative democracy in South Africa brought about the end of white minority rule and the apartheid system, along with its racially discriminatory laws, regulations, and procedures. For the most part, commentators have focused their attention on the most visible aspects of this political transition: nonracial elections; the Government of National Unity, a fragile coalition which brought together (temporarily, as it turned out) the dominant African National Congress (ANC) and its junior partner, the National Party; and the continuing strife in KwaZulu/Natal pitting ANC supporters against Chief Gatsha Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).
Yet in the rush to emphasize the novelties of the "new South Africa," some important features of this political transition have been largely ignored. The point of departure for understanding both the form and content of the `new South Africa' is the recognition that the political transition resolved one set of contradictions only to replace these with new ones. The following list is not intended to be exhaustive, but merely to highlight some of the main contradictory impulses unleashed with the end of apartheid and the transition to representative democracy; intra-elite wheeling and dealing ("elite-pacting") versus participatory democracy; entrenched socio-economic privilege versus radical redistribution; political activism versus petty criminality; and the ANC as a political party versus the ANC as an enduring social movement. These polarizing currents tear away at the political compromise reached through four years of negotiations and culminating in the 1994 nonracial elections that established the ANC leadership in the administrative seat of political power.
In this context, political stability in South Africa rests largely on the ability of the top ANC leadership clustered around President Nelson Mandela to maintain a delicate balance between opposing forces. The main problem they face is clear: how to reconcile the rising expectations of the largely impoverished black majority with the demands of the privileged and powerful - mostly white property-owners - that their opportunities to reproduce their way of life will not change too much. Of course, the ANC leadership realizes that political uncertainty only triggers fears amongst investors and speculators, and this reluctance to commit capital only exacerbates economic stagnation. But how to meet the demands of both these constituencies at once: that is a very thorny question.
Perhaps the ANC's uncertainty of direction in this respect is also exacerbated by internal tensions, tensions raised by the demands of other of the "privileged and powerful" - those within the black community (and even within the ANC) itself. In this sense the political trajectory of Cyril Ramaphosa may illustrate something important about the evolving political situation in the "new South Africa." Ramaphosa emerged from the Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s. During most of the next decade, he built the powerful National Union of Mineworkers into one of the most formidable trade unions in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). In the early 1990s, he was elected secretary-general of the ANC. Recently, he announced his decision to resign both his ANC post and his seat in parliament to take up a new job as deputy executive chairman of New Africa Investments Limited (NAIL), a consortium of black investors which seeks to spearhead black economic empowerment via property ownership!
Of course, any verdict passed on the economic performance of the post-apartheid executive so far has to take into account what the ANC-led government inherited from the previous white minority regime. South Africa has one of the most unequal distributions of income and wealth in the world. The labour force, particularly the African majority, is poorly educated, underpaid and, to a considerable extent, locked into irregular, casualized work. Unemployment hovers around 40 percent; and recent investment has drifted toward capital intensive sectors. Despite the fact that South Africa in aggregate terms is an economic power in Africa, economic growth and development is hindered by a number of contradictions, including limited domestic market in terms of size, purchasing power, and sophistication; an exhausted potential at the lower end of import substitution; inadequate skills development of the labour force; and weak global competitiveness of key industrial sectors. These problems are exacerbated by the lack of a comprehensive and coherent development strategy and the reluctance of the large capitalist conglomerates to commit much-needed capital to long-term investment programmes that would absorb unemployment, restore global competitiveness, and elevate the skill level of the labour force.
The ANC-led government has attempted to address these structural imbalances through the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), an ambitious blueprint aimed at generating economic growth and development by meeting basic needs of the most marginalised sectors of the population, enhancing human skills through training programmes, promoting technological development, and improving the competitiveness of stagnant industries. At the beginning, much of the political left, including the South African Communist Party (SACP), portrayed the RDP as the political vehicle upon which progressive political forces would ride the high tide of rising expectations. It was hoped that by empowering local communities the RDP would launch a wider assault on entrenched power and privilege.
Yet almost from the outset, the main tenets of the RDP were gutted. The impact of progressive policies has been limited. Unemployment has not changed appreciably, economic growth has stagnated at levels far below those expected by key government policy-makers, and the gap between rich and poor is increasing. The narrow focus of the post1990 negotiations process virtually ensured that the post-apartheid government would have limited powers to mobilise the productive assets of the country toward a massive state-sponsored economic restructuring programme. It was agreed, either explicitly or implicitly, that the new government would not resort to nationalization of privately-owned assets and would not use massive state spending to offset the socio-economic inequalities inherited from the past. Without a state-led programme along the lines of the post-World War II social-democratic indicative-planning models of Western Europe or 1930s New Deal unemployment-absorbing programmes undertaken in the United States, the new government is largely dependent on winning the favour of reluctant owners of capital to make the kinds of investment decisions that would allow policy-makers to realize their goals.
The end of formal apartheid and the transition to representative democracy has brought about a shift in the locus of social conflict. During the years of white minority rule, political struggle focused on state power. For the most part, the anti-apartheid movement encouraged, aided, and abetted unrest in the townships and squatter camps because continuing strife undermined the legitimacy of the white minority regime. With the transition to representative democracy, yesterday's "freedom fighters" are today's unemployed township youth. There has been a displacement of social conflict downward and outward, to every level of the social structure, particularly on the margins and peripheries. Intense competition for land, housing, and access to other scarce resources has triggered conflicts in local communities in urban as well as rural areas. During the apartheid years, conflicts between "haves" and "have-nots" were generally regarded as "political" in nature, but now they are seen as disruptive and unsettling.
This involution of conflict has gone hand-in-hand with rising criminal violence, petty theft, and gang "turf wars." Middle class communities - white as well as black - are demanding more police protection and stricter policies toward crime. In Cape Town, a well-organized vigilante group in a settled working class "coloured" area took matters into its own hands, killing one gang leader, and vowing to rid their local community of known criminals.
The transition to liberal democracy has exacerbated some old social cleavages and even created new ones. Even though the idea has existed in embryo for quite some time, the emergence of a distinct movement promoting "Coloured identity" reflects a growing social fragmentation that cuts against the grain of the "universalising" politics of the anti-apartheid movement. The National Party in the western Cape has blatantly used "anti-African" themes in its election campaigns to drive a wedge between voters in the (mostly African) townships and squatter camps, and the (mostly coloured) residents of settled working class communities. Despite efforts to counteract these divisive tactics, the National Party - with a number of prominent coloured politicians in its camp and a large following of coloured voters - has established itself as the dominant political party in the region. All in all, the emphasis on parliamentary and local elections has brought about a reshuffling of "politics" from broad national concerns dealing with equality under the law, toward the "politics of social closure." The demands of home-owners for zoning regulations to expel squatters, the demands of politicians to build an electric fence along the borders to keep Mozambicans from illegally crossing, the demands to maintain "standards" in the schools, are all examples of this trend toward establishing social boundaries between "us" and "them."
The end of apartheid has also accelerated the growth and development of a new middle class in South Africa, comprised mainly of a technically-trained, and skilled salariat, a technical-managerial stratum located between small-scale entrepreneurial owners of capital (not to mention the large-scale capitalists), on the one side, and the semi-skilled and unskilled working class, on the other. This intermediate class is increasingly comprised of upwardly mobile (so-called) African, coloured, and Indian college-educated young people who, for the first time, share the socio-economic privileges long associated with being white and comfortably middle class. Competition for access to the limited spaces in this privileged middle class has detonated social conflict, much of which centres on the definition and implementation of so-called "affirmative action" programmes.
The political left, including the trade union movement, the South African Communist Party (SACP), and smaller socialist groups, had hoped that the process of ushering in political democracy would give rise to new pressure from below. This would lead inexorably toward wider demands for participatory democracy and, at the very least, some state-led, proto-socialist programmes that would address problems linked to poverty and unemployment, landlessness, lack of resources, and blocked opportunities for upward mobility and socio-economic advancement. Without a blueprint for an "actually working socialism," the political left has generally lost its sense of direction. The internal mass base of the anti-apartheid movement, once located with COSATU and the United Democratic Front, has been more or less successfully co-opted into the mainstream ANC. For the most part, progressive forces remain loyal to the ANC. Yet this support amongst the mass base is not as deep and enduring as it once was. Once Nelson Mandela leaves office, the cracks in the once-solid firmament will become much more visible.
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