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Being a revolutionary or believer in emancipatory transformation in post-apartheid South Africa: Part six


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Being a revolutionary or believer in emancipatory transformation in post-apartheid South Africa: Part six

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

28th June 2023

By: Raymond Suttner


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The onset of democratic rule set in motion a completely different framework for politics from that previously practised in the ANC and its allies. Parliamentary politics – constitutional politics – in a rule-based order was very different from the popular politics, military politics of MK, and other illegal politics of the ANC. Theoretically there would no longer need to be any more ducking and diving to avoid police, and hunger and healthcare and similar questions would now be addressed – where needed – through public programmes.

Although this generally represented a great advance over the illegality and subterfuge that was required of the ANC for it to continue operating, it nevertheless also created problems relating to how it retained the democratic, popular qualities and debates that manifested themselves in the 1980s inside the country, as well as in many of the debates in the military camps and other parts of the ANC outside the country.


For those who came from the Struggle, even some with a legal scholarly background as in my case, the shift required a very different attitude towards the law that applied. Those who had previously considered it an everyday practice to bypass or evade or break the law of apartheid ought, in post-apartheid South Africa, to have believed that it was a duty to abide by the law and encourage that compliance in others.

The law and constitution of post-apartheid South Africa provided a line of defence – a protective umbrella – for those who had suffered most (or in the case of activists/cadres had been the main targets of repression under apartheid rule).  All people were to be protected from a range of acts of aggression that had characterised apartheid. One could not be hit with batons, or with live or rubber bullets, except in exceptional conditions regulated by law.  One could not simply be removed from one’s home or have one’s home demolished at the whim of authorities and the principle of legality was applicable to a range of other assaults on people.


The rule of law was to prevail, and the courts were to draw on a Constitution that often modified well-established common law approaches in order to align the existing law with a developing democratic law, providing also for social and economic benefits, based on the Constitution.

The Constitution and subsequent legislation also set out a range of welfare provisions, aimed especially at alleviating the plight of the most vulnerable.  South Africa now has one of the most extensive welfare systems in the world, even allowing for the abuses that have led to diversion of some of these packages from reaching their intended beneficiaries.

Recent studies show that 47% of South Africans benefit from one or other social grant and many of these facilitate steps towards financial self-sufficiency and employment. (This is in a situation where de facto unemployment is over 45%, using the extended definition, which includes those who have given up looking for work.)  With unemployment being at this level, it has been said that social grants have become a substitute for jobs – although it has also been suggested by Leila Patel’s findings that grants are often used to create work and business opportunities. 

During the Mandela and Mbeki presidencies the economy was restructured and re-directed in an effort to cover the needs of all the people. The benefits of this were seen in economic growth during the Mbeki period. But it was a period that also saw controversies: the GEAR macroeconomic policy did not sit well with many, and Mbeki’s stance on HIV/Aids that led to the delay in providing anti-retrovirals that if introduced earlier could probably have reduced fatalities.

There were, nevertheless, important gains in this period, with services such as water and electricity being provided for the first time to many villages. Unfortunately, some of this work was rushed, without training local people for maintenance, possibly as a result of “chasing numbers”.  A number of the gains made then are no longer in working order.

But in evaluating post-apartheid democratic South Africa, my goal is not to examine and analyse alternative policy directions and the social and economic doctrines that form their foundation. My concern is with the conditions that have come to exist and to what extent these represent not only a great setback, but one that has been derived from indifference and betrayal of trust.  My belief is that while massive looting happened primarily in the Jacob Zuma presidency, and continues today, some of the foundations for our difficulties can be found in relatively neglected features of the earlier periods.

‘Modernisation’: From liberation movement to political party

One of the reasons the issue of “modernisation” became more than a doctrinal dispute relates to the fact that the ANC became, without any formal decision, an electorally focused conventional political party.

From the time of the onset of democratic rule, processes unfolded which transformed the popular politics of the ANC into practices very similar to that found in conventional Western democratic states. From the time of unbanning, a range of experts from Western countries and sections of business and business schools were offering advice to the ANC. The thrust of this advice was that the ANC should “normalise” and “modernise” itself. In short this would require the ANC to cast aside its national liberation or popular character and become a conventional political party with flimsy contact and links with its electoral base, beyond soliciting their votes. It would no longer be a political organisation with the features generally found in popular-based social movements, those that had characterised the ANC for much of the 1950s and later years. 

The idea of “normalisation” was – unstated but intended – to unhitch the ANC from the earlier form of its connection with its mass base, although the relationship needed to be retained within limits – sufficient to ensure the continued return of the ANC to power.

There was never a formal decision to transform the ANC into a political party, but there were processes at work which led gradually to the diminution of the importance of the ANC as a political organisation, compared with government. This was aided by the centralisation that was under way in government and the presidency, in both the Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki periods.  (This is contrary to the mythology of everything being decided at Luthuli House).  Some clearly had in mind to get shod of the idea of the ANC as national liberation movement that would be continually hovering over government.

In the months prior to the 1994 elections, I worked in ANC HQ and I remember that some of us were called to meetings where inputs were made by people from business schools, and others with purported expertise in management and organisation, supposedly applicable to  “modernising” the ANC.

These visitors suggested models of management of the ANC that drew on Western political parties but also on models used in business.  I was then in leadership and there was no NEC decision to solicit these inputs.  Their appearance may have derived from the Secretary General’s Office, for although it was an organisational question, it was not an initiative of the Organising Department (of which I was a part as the head of ANC Political Education).

This is not to say that there was nothing to be learnt from such initiatives; processes of governance and public administration needed an element of professionalisation in order to perform adequately, and party and government should not be more-or-less merged. The need for separation was especially important at the level below government, with the need for professional autonomy for leaders in the public service itself.

Some of us were not prepared for much that was needed to manage and build a civil service for a democratic South Africa.  I am not sure that the question of the civil service has ever been addressed as a democratic question, since the patterns of engagement between public administration and the people continues in most cases to bear resemblance to the top-down bureaucratic approaches of the apartheid era.

Even if one accepts the need to professionalise government and the civil service, as I now do, this did not mean that the character of the ANC (or other liberation movements in other countries) ought to have become an electoral machine, inactive apart from ensuring that the liberation movement (now political party) got elected.

There was nothing in ANC programmes of the time that suggested that the activities of the organisation as organisation (not as populariser of government policies or campaigning for elections) would radically change when it became leader in government.  Obviously campaigning for elections and employing many of its cadres who were suited to government was required insofar as these were people who were supposed to have transformation in mind.

But the focus on managing the organisation was not intended to be at the expense of the content of organisational policies or programmes for transforming peoples’ lives.  My belief is that the readiness of former loyal cadres of the ANC to steal from the poor has partly to do with the liberation movement becoming distanced from its own constituency in becoming a political party.

Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.


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