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Southern Africa Report Archive

The recent visit to Canada by Albie Sachs - South African activist, lawyer, author - is also featured in our pages. SAR interviewed him at length about these topics and, more generally, on the various modalities of what he termed "preparing for power." (jbv)

vol 9 no 2

"Preparing ourselves for power": Albie Sachs in Toronto

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Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 9, No 2, November 1993
Page 13
"South Africa"


Albie Sachs: who can forget the grisly picture, flashed across the world, of his maimed body blown into a Maputo street in 1988, target of a car bomb planted by agents of the South African state? Victim of apartheid . . . yet anything but a victim, then or now. Lawyer, author and longtime ANC activist, Sachs was wearing a new hat - as a key member of the ANC's own Constitutional Committee - when he visited Toronto last month and spoke with members of SAR's editorial working group (many of whom were old friends of Albie's from his days of Mozambican exile). And he was filled with his accustomed enthusiasm and conviction even as he spoke soberly of the complexities of "preparing ourselves for power" in the "very interesting and confusing and exciting time" that defines the present moment in South Africa.

The elections

As Sachs emphasized, the process of preparing for power involved more than merely fighting the up-coming elections. Nonetheless, he did speak animatedly about the opportunities provided by the elections themselves, noting that, at the ANC's National Executive Committee meetings, quite a lot of time is spent on planning the campaign. "Our whole campaign," he said, "is a mixture of grassroots, old-style national liberation-type politics and modern, I wouldn't say hi-tech but medium-tech, electioneering. I must say we enjoy that." For the holding of these elections must be reckoned "a huge victory." "It's particularly important for sectors of society that have been abandoned not only in economic and social terms but also politically. Suddenly each person counts, no one can be taken for granted. So from that point of view this is our equivalent of independence . . . when everybody votes on the basis of equality and people know it, the whites know it, the blacks know it. It would be awful if we said that these are just parliamentary elections and merely formal representative democracy, which isn't the same as real democracy and merely gives people the illusion of having power when they don't have power." That would be giving away too much, Sachs says. Instead the elections should be a signal for celebrations, "a moment of satisfaction for a job well done," a moment that "gives you the courage to move into the next phase with the same kind of determination and conviction."

Moreover, the election could prove to be an opportunity of a particular kind for the ANC, "our biggest form of mass action," in Sachs' phrase. This is true both of the current process of determining, with significant bottom-up participation, the electoral lists at both national and regional levels and of organizing for the elections themselves. "It's enormously mobilizing, something where real door-to-door activity can take place. It's helping to revitalize the branches. Election committees have been set up all over the place and voter education is catching on in a big way . . . . It's to our credit that we staked everything on elections some time ago, establishing as a kind of constitutional fact that there would be elections - long before there was agreement on how elections were to be conducted - just to establish the claim of elections as an alternative to violence and to all the fighting over turf. It's been quite important for the internal psychology in our own movement."

Indeed, "some of the young comrades who I remember hearing a few years ago talking very earnestly about the difference between armed propaganda and people's war are now discussing the difference between proportional representation and single-member constituencies!" But was there also a danger here of the movement taking the elections too seriously, as an end in themselves? As Sachs himself was quick to emphasize, it's not enough in the South African situation for the ANC merely to play the electoral game and to rely solely on the credit it has earned as a resistance organization - demanding, in effect, a blank check and assuming that "history, as it were, gives you an axiomatic rightness in what you do and so you don't research, you don't consult, you don't debate, you don't argue because you're right."

The broader struggle

What, then, of preparing for power in the broader sense. As Sachs admitted, the transition to a democratic South Africa is proving to be "a very different process from what many of us used to dream about and imagine. Preparing for power was seen as capturing the instruments of state power from the outside and destroying them and replacing them with new instruments that would serve the interests of the people" But things have proven to be much less straightforward than that and, as a result, "we're confronted with a whole variety of issues and dilemmas that we haven't been well prepared for, not least regarding the nature of our movement and our organization." How, for example, is the spark of radical challenge to the South African status quo to be kept alive within the ANC? Part of the de Klerk government's own strategy over the past year or so has been precisely to brake the momentum of the ANC, to delay on elections so as both to "use their dirty tricks both to mess us up" and to encourage people to "forget that they were the oppressors and we were the freedom fighters so that they would be seen as just another political party and we would be seen as just another political party. That's what last year was about." Moreover, in Sachs' view, even those enemies of the ANC who have been less inclined to delay the electoral process, see the movement's entry into parliament as, in and of itself, likely to be deradicalizing - as the ANC converts itself from liberation movement to political party. "What they envisage is a tame organization that's totally caught up in electoral-type politics, and that is therefore easy to manipulate."

It's because of this, Sachs stated, that "some of our people are resisting any transformation of the ANC into a body capable of conducting an effective election campaign, winning elections, and functioning in the parliamentary, democracy-type context." But this is no more acceptable a position than is any mere succumbing to "parliamentary cretinism." The ANC "has accepted, in the spirit of the Freedom Charter . . . the modalities and the legality and the supervision and accountability that's implicit in electoral politics," that is a given. Having done so, the ANC also has to be very good at parliamentary politics. Indeed, Sachs was bold to say that this is what "people's power" is felt to mean to the mass of South Africans. Moreover, the skills the ANC has already demonstrated - in the activities of Mandela, Ramaphosa, Mbeki and others in the negotiations forum, for example - has been very important not only "in overcoming the arrogance of the present holders of power and of the international diplomatic community (which is very patronizing towards us) but also in overcoming what Samora Machel used to call the psychology of underdevelopment in our own people."

But what of the dangers of the ANC leadership itself yielding to the corrupting influence of holding power? Here Sachs emphasized the importance of the fact that the ANC is now beginning to discuss within its ranks the drafting of a code of conduct to be based, in all probability, on the principle of maximum disclosure (of gifts, for example): "We feel it's important to have it in place now in order to establish the norms of the organization and to highlight the dangers that we see might be facing us." Many ANC cadres are going to move from being very poor to occupying "positions of authority, decision-making, in touch with vast resources, with many people looking to us for all sorts of things. It's important that we try to develop the internal culture and the clearly delineated restraints that will at least minimize corruption, nepotism, favouritism of different kinds and also, through the very discussion of the draft clauses, encourage people actually to concentrate on the importance of the movement's morality and the culture of internal accountability and responsibility."

Sachs' SAR interviewers were surprised to find him nonetheless recycling some old saws - all too familiar from previous African decolonization processes - that seemed to qualify a bit too easily the point he was making. He expressed anger at "sneering" press references to ANC leaders' buying expensive suburban houses, suggesting that "the people" actually "want our leaders to live reasonably well, it's a dignity and they feel if we're going to take over this country, that's part and parcel of that whole process." He was also quick to label as merely "populist" those who might raise too many questions about such practices.

Keeping the ANC honest

However, Sachs did acknowledge the danger of leaders being "bought off by capital" and/or "using their state positions to advance their own interests or those of their cronies." Indeed, in Sachs' view South Africa may be particularly vulnerable in this regard since such practices can all too easily be rationalized in merely racist terms, in the name of (otherwise legitimate) black advancement. In consequence, Sachs also spoke of forces outside the ANC that might help to keep the movement itself honest, emphasizing the role in this regard of "civil society." In Sachs' view, the concept positively encapsulates the chief strengths of the UDF's earlier non-vanguardist, community-based approach to politics. And, in the current situation, "a strong civil society with lots of NGOs, with the trade unions, civics and religious bodies, [can be] out there watching us and demanding that the state serve the interests of the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed sectors of society. These things go together. If you have a strong civil society and a strong internal culture then you get the sort of balance that might be appropriate."

One other major front on which the ANC is ill-prepared for power, Sachs emphasized, is with regard to socio-economic policy-making: "We don't have a program except in the most generalized sort of way." In consequence, "what we're planning now is a conference on reconstruction and development for December and this [broad-based] conference will enable and compel us . . . to work out concrete programs for dealing with the lives of people." Sachs' sees the role of "civil society" as being important in this connection as well; he envisages COSATU as continuing to play a particularly creative role in developing ideas on reconstructing the economy. And other groups - farm-workers and the rural poor, for example - should be empowered to play creative roles in contributing very concretely to policy-making in the spheres most relevant to them, both in the projected conference and in the new circumstances of the post-election period.

Democratizing the process of economic decision-making in this way makes sense. However, some of Sachs' interlocutors during his Toronto visit were more uneasy with the tone he adopted when advocating, in very strong terms, the need for "pragmatism," "hard realism" and "macro-economic discipline" in dealing with socio-economic issues ("We have to learn to live in the modern world," he stated). For he seemed to be contrasting the virtues of such emphases a bit too comfortably to the "metaphysics," "populist demagogy" and "abstract and overly schematic ideas and formulations" that now apparently define for him more classic, left-wing approaches.

True, Sachs admitted (somewhat paradoxically) that any gains from the ANC's new "realism" have been purchased at the expense of the movement's having "no analytical framework at all" and being reduced to "merely improvising." Nonetheless, his emphasis fell quite strongly on such items as the centrality to progressive economic change of advancing the interests of a new cadre of black entrepreneurs, of encouraging foreign investment and of welcoming the role of the World Bank (presented as an advocate of training, for example, and an advocate of business efficiency). In short, on Sachs' account the ANC's economic agenda sounded, as often as not, to be merely neo-liberal, with only some of his references - to the wisdom of exploring further the possible contradictions within international institutions, for example, or to the importance (mentioned above) of helping popular forces to organize themselves to realize their basic needs - suggesting the possibility of retaining even a minimally social-democratic edge to economic policy-making.

The constitution

Is the ANC's narrowing economic agenda, as evoked by Albie Sachs, "realistic"? Is it wise? These questions remained in the air. But in any case Sachs' main brief, at home, is not economics but the constitution. In consequence, the main interest of his Toronto visit - which included an eloquent address at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School - centred more directly on his views regarding the current constitutional negotiations in which he is an active participant. The SAR editorial working group quizzed him on such matters as well.

As Sachs put it, "for us there were two absolutely crucial matters of principle that were really non-negotiable . . . first, one person one vote as the foundation of the whole political order in South Africa at all levels [and] second, the inclusion of the [the four so-called independent homelands] in that process, the reintegration of South Africa. This is all embodied in a concept of nonracial elections for the body that's going to draft the constitution. We've achieved that, not without difficulty; we had to fight every inch of the way on that whole thing." In order to achieve that, Sachs noted, the ANC had to agree to a two-thirds majority for constitutional agreement. But "that's not a problem. We want a constitution to embody a broad national will, and to bind everybody it must have that broad input."

However, other real difficulties did arise in other areas, one centring on the government's insistence on embedding what they call "power-sharing" in the whole constitutional format; they sought, in fact, to grant veto power to minority parties through a whole range of complicated mechanisms. It was over this question that negotiations broke down in 1992 and "it was only the fall-out from the Boipatong massacre, Bisho, the mass actions, [that] enabled us to be able to reestablish that the fundamental ideas of democracy, which really means majority rule, had to be accepted." Of course, Sachs said, "the concession we made in that respect was to agree to a government of national unity for a maximum of five years" - most notably to a coalition Cabinet comprised of representation proportional to each parties' seats in the parliament/constitutional assembly - with all the complexities that this will involve.

Indeed, how such a "voluntarily enforced coalition" can actually be expected to work in practice is a point of on-going discussion, Sachs admitted: "We're saying, on the one hand, that there can't be a minority veto and they're saying, on the other hand, that what's the point of a government of national unity if fifty plus one means you just take decisions." For example, "we want the president to be able to select all the members of the cabinet. But then there's a huge debate about the difference between `in consultation with' and `after consultation with'. `After consultation with' means you've got to listen and you've got to give weight to what you're hearing, but you're not bound by it. `In consultation with' means it's a joint decision. I can't tell you the amount of time spent on the formulation and reformulation of that phrase."

This kind of struggle continues, of course, but whatever the difficulties ahead Sachs does feel it will be possible to avoid the worst excesses of the other side's demands (epitomized by Sachs as a system of "checks and balances" that would be "all checks and no balances" and would produce "a form of governmental paralysis that would have suited them all too well because paralysis means the status quo with no transformation"). Sachs also emphasized that, in any case, such formulae are only one aspect of things. Much will depend on the underlying balance of political forces that informs inter-party negotiations in the post-electoral period: "If there's a high degree of consciousness in society, if the civil society is well organized, if the ANC is working well, if we're democratic in our ranks, if we've got clear policies to offer people, then a relatively open constitutional arrangement can be very beneficial to us."

There are other challenges. After all, the newly elected parliament will be both a parliament for government and a parliament for constitution-making and it's not always clear, Sachs suggested, how that dual role can be expected to play itself out. His own hunch is that, acting constituent assembly, this parliament will not be cabinet-directed but instead will have to "develop its own methodologies, styles of working, and develop its own dynamic." But there are other tough questions as well; for example, "the crucial issues of the time frame for finalizing the document and the deadlock breaking mechanism [are] still being debated." For example, "we want a limited term, a situation in which the minds of the constitution-making body are concentrated on coming up with a consensus that's going to work. And the other side wants to spin out the thing indefinitely. So the deadlock breaking mechanism becomes important."


In addition - "it is perhaps the area where we've been pushed the hardest" - a particularly key issue has been in relation to the tiers of government. For its part the ANC has embraced the idea of strong regional governments: "the regional factor is important in South Africa as it is anywhere in the world and, again, that's something we've got to learn not just to live with and accommodate, but accept that it's part and parcel of who we are, the nature of our country" The ANC's federal formula - influenced by study of the German and other experiences - has therefore become (in Sachs' formulation) one of "strong national government for national tasks, strong regional government for regional tasks, strong local government for local tasks."

Unfortunately, however, the "federalogues" - those identified by Sachs as advocating various extreme versions of decentralized government - want a great deal more than that. Take, for example, "the Buthelezis, who don't want democracy at all, who really want a confederal type of situation, who don't even want to be grounded by a bill of rights . . . . It's not even a question of an autonomous democratic state because they're going to lose elections even in Natal. Instead, they want to maintain authoritarian systems of rule [in their own local fiefdoms]. I think that's at the heart of their thinking." Others - the National Party and the Democratic Party - "use classical pro-federal arguments (because) many of them are very worried about major social transformation and they see federalism as a brake on that." So here, too, struggle and debate - over what might be exclusive powers, what concurrent powers, and the like - continues. Sachs does feel that a reasonable line is likely to be held, although he also expresses concern about the current attempt by "federalogues" to freeze the divisions of powers defined by the present interim constitutional arrangements into place.

There are dangers, then, but Sachs also emphasized that "the good thing about all this debate is that it's forcing the ANC to take the regions very seriously and to run for office in every region and that means not only mobilizing, but it means speaking to people and putting resources there and establishing structures and attending to the demands and interests of people everywhere in the country." Of course, this may raise, in and of itself, other kinds of constitutional issues - relating to the question of constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms - that Sachs stressed in concluding his interview. In the rural areas, for example, "traditional leaders are making a heavy push at this stage" and many of them are not particularly enlightened on issues like the application of draft bill of rights provisions to the demand for gender equality. Here "we're trying to avoid a head-on collision where people are seen as being forced to make an absolute choice between culture and equality, partly because we lose if there's that head-on collision."

On the other hand, Sachs continued, "you can't allow culture to be used as a means of negating fundamental principles of the bill of rights. All our cultures have patriarchy built into them. Again, this is an area where there are strong women's organizations and a strong public consciousness about the importance of the fight against sexism will probably be more important than the actual terms of the constitution." To be sure, Sachs does find aspects of the constitutionalization of such matters rather worrying because the present interim bill of rights (with reference to the issue of gender equality but to other issues as well) does "lack clear internal logic" and is "so full of themes and counter themes [that] it doesn't stand up very well." Is it, nonetheless, a good dry run for a proper charter of rights in the future? We were left with the distinct impression that it will be so long as Albie Sachs has anything to say about it!



In discussing the importance of developing a new political culture in South Africa (see accompanying article), Albie Sachs discussed at some length recent public revelations of ill-treatment, even abuse, of captives held by the ANC, mainly in the early 1980s (see Tom Lodge's article, "Spectres from the Camps," SAR, January-February, 1993). Here was an issue that, if dealt with effectively, Sachs saw as constituting an important learning experience for South Africans. It has come as a very real jolt for many in the ANC, however. "The one thing that our movement has had is its morality and its claim to be different from the enemy, and the approach has been that so many lies have been told about us (which people know are actual lies) that the allegations made about ill-treatment in the camps were seen as just another set of lies - from the commercial press, South African military disinformation, and so on. So it was a shock to discover that in fact there were serious abuses." Sachs added that "each one of us came to this information at different stages; in my case I was informed by Oliver Tambo in about 1984 when he and I were discussing a possible code of conduct for the movement."

"Tambo said we needed to draft a code of conduct for treatment of prisoners and I said that one thing was very easy, there should be no torture or cruel or inhuman punishment. And he said that we use torture and he just looked at me and left it like that, without comment. It was one of the hardest moments I've had in my decades of being in the ANC. He didn't just say, `We use torture, so what?' On the contrary [he said it] with almost an agonized expression. Really what he was saying is: What is our movement's position going to be on issues like this . . . I assume he said that just after the Stewart Commission would have reported so it wasn't just a question of allegations and counter-allegations and denials. [The Stewart Commission] was an ANC commission set up at the time and the commission reported very forcefully and in strong language, denouncing what had been happening. The movement had then to decide, `Are we one of those movements where you feel you're dealing with a ruthless counter-revolution and you're entitled to use the maximum means available to you to destroy it, or do we have certain standards and a certain kind of a morality within the culture of resistance and revolution that prevents these things from happening?' "

Of course, Sachs reminded us, the ANC was literally at war and agents were being sent in massive numbers by General Coetzee to infiltrate, even to kill the leadership and some in the ANC did favour the use of any means to get information from suspect and/or known agents. Nonetheless, with Tambo's encouragement, a whole day was given over to a discussion of the ANC's own statutes regarding such matters during the ANC's 1985 Kabwe Consultative Conference. And, ultimately, the delegates** insisted that this was not be a discretionary matter but should be a question of "a kind of rule of law within the ANC.

"That's when we established a code of conduct. I think it's unique in liberation politics . . . that we actually had an embryo legal system . . . It's quite clear that introducing these procedures and developing systems of internal accountability, coupled with replacing the leadership of security and developing some kind of inspection profoundly improved the situation. And I'm sure it was very important for the survival and for the basic unity of the ANC to have these internal directives. More damage could have been done to the organization by abuses and authoritarianism than even by enemy action."

In other words, Sachs emphasized, the two recent Commissions of Inquiry (undertaken, it bears noting, with the ANC's own blessing) are not something new. Nor have they been mounted simply in response to external pressure. Rather, they are "a continuation of a process that we took on our own initiative for purposes of consolidating our own internal morality and philosophy a long long time ago." These commissions have been quite painful experiences, nonetheless, reinforcing the picture of real abuses of power - "a shameful episode," in Sachs' phrase. (Some of the victims were undoubtedly "honest comrades"; moreover, Sachs emphasizes, "you don't torture even villains.")

The fall-out from this process of self-exposure has been largely positive, Sachs feels. It was, in the first place, important for the ANC to have these investigations "because we knew that the government was going to push very hard in the election campaigns to focus all attention on these questions and not on their record and not on the poverty and the misery of life of people. Their line is very strongly that in the end we're all sinners and that they might have made mistakes and done wrong things in the past but the ANC hasn't been any different." We had to undermine that argument, Sachs said. He also suggested that there are many people who have actually been won over to the ANC out of respect for its candour and honesty on this matter. Even more important for Sachs, though, is the likely impact of the exercise on the ANC itself: "It is important that when we assume office we don't walk in carrying lies in our baggage. This theme of truth and facing up to realities and being honest with people is going to be essential in the coming phase."

But, more immediately, what kind of follow up is there going to be to the commissions' findings? This has been much debated by the ANC's National Executive Committee (NEC), with varied reactions. Thus, "one very strong feeling that emerged was that here we are being asked to pay compensation to victims of our ill-treatment and being asked to take punitive action against our security people when the people (who did much worse) as a matter of organized state policy and on a massive scale over a long period of time . . . are getting off not only scot free but with fat pensions. The feeling was that it's unjust to single out those of our security officials (who, in any case, have been named and humiliated), some of whom at that stage were 18, 19, 20, 21, doing what they thought were their revolutionary duty." It was "felt that this would be unjust in itself, an example of the ANC going in for a kind of self-flagellation in circumstances where the masses, the people would feel, are you people crazy?" In short, any settling of accounts within the ANC would have to be part of a broader initiative designed to deal simultaneously with the even more heinous offenses committed by the state in its decades of defence of the apartheid system.

To be sure, Sachs did seem a little uneasy with the fact that some of those named in the commissions' reports have not been removed immediately from ANC security positions.*** Nonetheless, he supported vigorously the general position, ultimately adopted by the NEC, to guide the long-run handling of the issue: that merely ignoring the issue is not good enough and that "what's really needed is a Commission of Truth that would eventually open up all the abuses in the country on an across-the-board basis and we wouldn't exclude investigation of abuses by ANC people . . . It was a kind of merging or blending of what to do with the actual disclosures in relation to ANC personnel and what we're proposing in relation to the government people . . . (A)ll cases would have to be investigated and the appropriate forms of compensation and who should be moved from jobs and so on should be done on an across-the-board basis."

Amnesty, as a principle in the ANC's dealing with the old regime, would stay in place: "the basic approach that we've adopted is that we're not opting for Nuremberg trials." But we do want disclosure, he said. "We feel that that is the most fundamental aspect. Forgiveness and reconciliation depend on full disclosure. Even the right to be magnanimous and the right to forgive, which is a very important right for people to have, is dependent on acknowledgement of errors, or wrong-doings on the part of those who've been responsible. And the approach has been that to the extent that people disclose their wrong-doing so they will be indemnified against any form of penalty and penalization. There should be compensation for victims, and people in positions of authority and capable of repeating such wrong-doing should be moved to other positions where they can't further the abuse. This is important for the future so that history does not repeat itself and that norms are established that will be binding on any future security services."

Sachs doubts this will happen before the elections. There are dangers, of course, that the present government will merely use the intervening period to destroy documents and cover its tracks. But the fact is, Sachs says, that for any such Commission of Truth to work it must be broad-based, neither an exclusively ANC initiative nor one taken by the present government: "It should emerge out of the government of national unity concept and should be seen as part and parcel of achieving true national reconciliation on the basis of full acknowledgement of what happened in the past . . . We really want our country to move forward . . . so the idea [of the Commission] is to induce a sense of morality in public life, establish norms and values, and it fits in with the idea of a government of national unity and reconciliation based on truth and encouraging the truth of things in South Africa."


** "It was the young people," Sachs added, "who spoke the most forcefully at the Conference on the issue and who were the most insistent on preventing Security from having a free hand and from ill-treating people. It was most impressive to see one after another going up to the microphone and insisting that we are different from the enemy, that we fight for certain values, and that this kind of conduct was to be rejected."


*** At the same time, he defended the reputations of the two most senior ANC leaders, Jacob Zuma and Joe Modise, implicated, however tangentially, in the findings .

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