Debate and opposition within the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance since 1994

By Dale T. McKinley

The device by which content is replaced by form and ideas by phrases has produced a host of declamatory priests … whose last offshoots had of course to lead to democracy. Karl Marx[1]

In a 1994 article, published in Links (No. 3), I argued at length that the kind of democracy being embraced amongst many in the South African liberation movement was rooted in "classical liberal bourgeois thought although covered in claims to Marxism". This was at a time when numerous socialists, around the world and in South Africa, genuinely believed that there were distinct possibilities of a "socialist transition" in South Africa. My contention was that such possibilities were non-existent, and even of an "emancipatory 'democratic transition'" were minimal, as long as a historically informed class analysis did not form the basis for the left's conceptualisation and practice of democracy.

Fast forward to 2000, six years on in the South African "transition", and what do we find? Precisely the embracing of the now dominant political creed, liberal bourgeois democracy, by much of what, in 1994, constituted that very same left. The leading members of this triumphal order are now to be found across a wide cross-section of political parties, institutions of corporate and finance capital and civil society. But it is the largest and most powerful political player of all, the African National Congress (ANC), its rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, that has now become the standard-bearer of liberal bourgeois democracy in South Africa and the African continent.

Since coming to power in 1994, the ANC has dutifully followed the liberal bourgeois democratic formula of institutionalising (through a constitutional dispensation) the combination of individual rights and capitalist market economics. Just as in the past, when the "liberal state sought to overcome [the] partisanship of predecessors … to achieve neutrality by virtue of the generality of its purposes", so too has the ANC sought to make itself appear as though "it serves all and comes from all".[2] 3]4]

It is this kind of minimalist and capitalist conception and practice of democracy that the ANC has now embraced, even if somewhat awkwardly. This has happened despite the ANC's long history of association with more radical notions of mass participatory and non-capitalist democracy, such as those historically espoused by its Alliance partners, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).[5]

Political democratisation was achieved through capturing control of the state in the elections of 1994 at the conscious expense of a corresponding transformation of the economic sphere. This "historic compromise" (as many in the Alliance called it at the time) flew directly in the face of the dominant perspective that had held sway for so long amongst the ranks of the SACP and COSATU that there is nothing implicitly statist in any struggle for revolutionary change, but that there must be a fundamental attack on the entrenched economic and political interests of capital (in whatever form) in order for there to be meaningful liberation.

Yet the cumulative effect of the strategic and tactical program of the ANC since 1994 (both inside and outside government), tacitly supported by many within the leadership of the SACP and COSATU, has been to embrace a truncated democracy that has gradually demobilised and disempowered the very constituency capable of leading and carrying through a more complete democratic revolution that class of South Africa's workers and poor who have provided the ANC its democratic mandate. As Patrick Bond has correctly captured, this has engendered an "elite transition", in which democratic processes become increasingly circumscribed as the preserve of political and economic elites, and the boundaries of opposition and debate (particularly within the Alliance) are progressively narrowed.[6]

From a peculiarly romanticised attachment to classic guerrilla warfare, to a rhetorically heavy notion of insurrectionary people's power, to social and political contracts with capital, the strategic thrust of the ANC's struggle for national liberation, consummated in the post-1994 period, has consistently underestimated and seriously undermined the potential and actual struggle of the people themselves. Because of this, processes such as democratisation have taken on a narrow petty bourgeois, nationalist and predominantly political meaning and context. This perspective is thus left with no other option than to see socioeconomic change as secondary to the necessarily parallel struggle for political change. In other words, it privileges the capitalist status quo.[7]

As Neville Alexander has cogently argued, such a "liberal, free-market" approach is "unlikely to satisfy the material needs of the oppressed and impoverished majorities" in places like South Africa, "even though the gains in political space and in (individual) freedoms and rights are by no means unimportant".[8]

Setting the boundaries

The SACP and COSATU, as well as the working-class sections of the ANC, accepted, albeit cautiously, the "historic compromise" that had emerged from negotiations. Signs of political and organisational restlessness within the Alliance, no doubt, spurred the cautious approach. Such signs included the 1993 call by the National Union of Mineworkers to break the Alliance after the 1994 elections, the highly publicised "disciplining" of ANC/sacp stalwart Harry Gwala for condemning the compromises made and public utterances by COSATU's leadership reminding the ANC that it would "not be told what to do".[9]

Similarly, there were early indications that the ANC leadership was developing an intolerance for divergent perspectives from within the ranks. Long-time ANC cultural activist Mike Van Graan voiced what many others in the Alliance felt when he publicly declared:

Those of us who fought alongside you against apartheid thought that now we will have the space to create, to sing, to laugh, to criticise … We were wrong. We now realise that space can never be assumed; it must be fought for. Of course, some of us will yield to the temptations you offer, many will conform to the new status quo (already self-censorship and fear of criticising the ANC is rife), some will go into exile and a few will say "Nyet".[10]

As insurance against such perceived and/or real concerns about the ANC's trajectory, the SACP and COSATU initiated the drawing up of a Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP). Ostensibly designed to secure a political and programmatic commitment by the ANC government to meeting the basic social and economic needs of workers and the poor, the RDP emerged publicly in early 1994. It was hailed by the Alliance leadership as the new "people's program" and rapidly achieved the status of an ANC electoral manifesto on which the ANC subsequently rode to victory.[11]

It was not surprising, then, that after the overwhelming ANC victory at the polls a lengthy period of Alliance harmony set in. And yet, while all seemed quiet on the public front, a hugely important and instructive internal ANC document had been drawn up by the ANC's deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, in preparation for the ANC's Forty-Ninth National Conference (December 1994).

Entitled "From Resistance to Reconstruction: Tasks of the ANC in the New Epoch of the Democratic Transformation Unmandated Reflections", the lengthy document provides a comprehensive look into the views of the future leader of the ANC and the country, on the character of political opposition and the content of democratic debate (both within and outside the Alliance).[12]

Some of these objectives that these forces will pursue will be: To destroy the ANC from within … [and] to create contradictions and conflict between the ANC and other formations in the democratic movement. The offensive against the ANC will concentrate on a number of issues, among others: Splitting the organisation and fomenting an internal struggle on the basis that the ANC is made up of three component parts (in government, in parliament and at the grassroots) the ANC in government will be portrayed as having betrayed the interests of the masses, the ANC in parliament which will present itself as the "revolutionary watchdog" over the treacherous ANC in the executive, and the ANC outside government which will be projected as the true representative of the soul of the movement with a historic task to be the "revolution watchdogs"; Splitting the ANC around the issue of leadership, with various comrades within the movement being set up against one another on the basis that they represent different competing tendencies within the movement.

Mbeki went on to argue that such opposition forces will attempt to break the Alliance by:

Encouraging the SACP to publicly project itself as the "left conscience" which would fight for the loyalty of the ANC to the cause of the working people, against an ANC leadership which is inclined to over-compromise with the forces of bourgeois reformism; Inciting the SACP to use its independent structures as a Party to carry out such a campaign while also encouraging the members of the SACP within the ANC to form themselves into an organised faction to pursue the same objective; Encouraging the constitution of an ultra-left political formation which would, itself, challenge the policies and revolutionary credentials of the SACP, to force the latter to intensify its offensive to "rectify the line" within the ANC; Encouraging COSATU and its affiliates to project the pursuit of political and socio-economic objectives different from those that the ANC has set itself as a governing party; Encouraging COSATU to exploit the fact of the democratic transition and the place of the ANC in government to interpret this to mean that the ANC has an obligation to "its electorate", namely the African working class, to support it in all its demands or face denunciation as a traitor; On these bases, to encourage the launching of a major and sustained mass campaign, which, while addressing various legitimate worker demands would, at the same time, pose the spectre of ungovernability; And otherwise, encouraging the unions to be suspicious of the intentions of the "ANC in government" on the basis that the latter is likely to act in a manner intended to appease the domestic and international business world and multilateral financial institutions.

Given such a conspiratorial approach to important questions of political opposition and debate within the ANC and the Alliance, it is not surprising that Mbeki would argue that "it is vital that we secure the unity of the ANC, the tripartite alliance and broad democratic movement around a common strategic and tactical approach …". Similarly, it becomes clearer why Mbeki should view those within the Alliance who might hold, and express, opposing ideological perspectives as potential enemies of the new state (and ANC) and thus argue:

It would also help to contain those forces among our ranks which, having draped themselves in the cloak of radicalism, objectively act to discredit and weaken the government … We must understand that the new democracy cannot allow for hostile surveillance of the democratic process and the participants in this process. Change also demands that the ANC and the democratic movement as a whole should be able to shed some of its "members" regardless of how this might be exploited by our opponents to discredit the movement. (Italics mine.)

If such a document had been made accessible to the broad membership of the Alliance partners, it would no doubt have created a substantial wave of vigorous and potentially hostile debate and commentary. Mbeki's dangerous tendency to prejudge and label potential organisational opposition and dissenting political viewpoints within the Alliance and society as inherently negative and undermining of the "movement" would have, at the very least, received a corrective roasting from the ranks of the South African "left". Similarly, a wider exposure of Mbeki's explicit arguments for narrowing the boundaries of intra-alliance debate on key political and economic issues might have had the effect of creating a more tolerant and sustained atmosphere of expressive freedom (within both the Alliance and broader society). Unfortunately, the document remained the privileged possession of a select group of ANC leaders. When several of the scenarios it dealt with began to take place in later years, not as the result of conspiratorial prodding but in response to many of the capitalist policies adopted by the ANC leadership, its arguments as to how to deal with them were readily employed by that same leadership.

While it is impossible to gauge the extent to which Mbeki's "unmandated reflections" influenced the character and content of the ANC's Forty-Ninth National Conference, the two main outcomes were consistent with Mbeki's perspectives and push for power. Not only did the congress succeed in unifying the Alliance behind strategic pledges to fulfil the promises of the RDP, but it also signalled the ascendance of Mbeki to the apex of power within the ANC (and by association, the Alliance).

Potential rivals, such as former ANC secretary general Cyril Ramaphosa and the long-time ANC intellectual Pallo Jordan, were pushed aside in the leadership stakes, although both retained their popularity with the membership. There was little debate, and certainly no open opposition from within the ranks of the Alliance, although one radical academic with ties to the ANC was brave enough to warn that "[ANC] policy is being made in spite of and outside the context of the RDP … [which] is potentially subject to a process of marginalisation".[13]

For the next year and a half, the SACP and COSATU put most of their organisational energies and intellectual efforts into tackling the new challenges of taking over a contested state apparatus and grappling with the necessities of legislative reform. Outside of these governmental demands, Alliance politics revolved predominately around tactically distinct, but strategically reinforcing pronouncements of fealty to the RDP. For example, the SACP's Ninth Congress (April 6-8, 1995) emerged with a Strategic Perspectives document that was dominated by references to "implementing" and "hegemonising" the RDP,[14] 15]

No doubt, RDP euphoria and the provincial/local government elections of November 1995, which the ANC won comfortably in most parts of the country, provided extra political glue for a generally united Alliance during the first two years of post-apartheid South Africa. Nonetheless, there were worrying, but well concealed, signs of intolerance for political opposition and freedom of expression from within the ANC's own ranks (as former ANC general secretary Cheryl Carolus quickly found out when she expressed concerns about democratic decision-making within the ANC), as well as from its left Alliance allies. There were also clear signals that the ANC leadership was fast moving away from agreed-upon Alliance positions that had been arrived at through vibrant and open democratic debate and ideological contestation. If the SACP and COSATU had paid close attention to the short-lived, but symbolically important, "National Growth and Development Strategy" document issued by the ANC government in early 1996 (a document whose main thrust was to ride roughshod over the RDP's basic principles), they might have been able to foresee the turbulent times that lay just around the corner.

Moving into another GEAR

Ironically, it was just prior to the 75th anniversary of the SACP in July 1996 that the ANC government unveiled publicly its new macroeconomic policy, entitled "The Growth, Employment and Redistribution Programme" (GEAR). If previous ANC economic road signs had pointed away from the RDP's more radical redistributive framework, GEAR served to provide confirmation of the shift to a liberal capitalist, growth-first framework.

Much like the political economy underlying the convergence of liberal democracy and capitalism, GEAR forthrightly committed the ANC government (and all the SACP and COSATU politicians and bureaucrats in it) to a strict monetarist regime, market-led growth strategies and a South African version of trickle-down economics.[16] 17]

However, it was not long before grassroots members of all three Alliance partners began to question seriously the process by which GEAR had been adopted and its clear departure from the economic proposals contained in the RDP. Yet this debate took place predominantly outside the public realm, being contained for several months within the structures of the "movement". Within the ANC, reports began to emerge that there was a concerted attempt by the leadership to crack down on any dissent, particularly within the ranks of parliament.[18] 19]

Echoes of Mbeki's earlier perspectives on dealing with dissent and opposition were clearly being heard within the ANC, and it was becoming clear that those who stepped out of the "line" would be subject to intense pressure to conform coupled with the threat of political and/or material marginalisation. Indeed, the most important development to emerge from the ANC's right turn was the rapidity and success with which the leadership of the ANC was able to "manage" the debate, both politically and organisationally, and, in the process, coopt socialist and working-class opposition within its own ranks and those of the SACP and COSATU.

The macro-economic debate did burst into the open for a brief period in late 1996 and early 1997. The SACP's Central Committee came out in opposition to the "fundamentals" of GEAR and raised some critical questions about the political direction of the Alliance,[20] 21]22]

And yet, as if to confirm the ANC leadership's political "management" abilities (and the relative "softness" of the opposition from the leadership of the SACP and COSATU), there once again descended a period of political and organisational quiescence. Essentially, the GEAR "hiccup" had proved to be a bump (even if a sizeable one) on the road to the ANC's institutionalisation of liberal bourgeois democracy, confirming the ability of the ANC leadership, alongside many of its SACP and COSATU colleagues, to contain and suppress truly open debate within base organisational structures.

The bottom line was that those who attempted to engage in such debate and who openly expressed their opposition were told to toe the line, threatened with disciplinary measures or gradually marginalised from the respective centres of decision-making and power.[23]

The heavy hand of enforced unity

"Love of power is the chief danger of the educator, as of the politician." Bertrand Russell[24]

After three years of holding the political reins of power, the leadership of the ANC and its Alliance partners had begun to establish what was to become a familiar pattern to deal with potentially explosive and divisive differences amongst the ranks: hold an Alliance summit. Not only were such summits a means to "talk things through", but they could also be tightly controlled by the leadership selected to attend.

By mid-1997, despite their generally successful efforts to dampen the spontaneity and militancy of the debate around GEAR and the increasingly negative responses to its practical effects, the Alliance leaders felt the need to convene another summit. As at the previous one (and those that were to come after), the Alliance leadership engaged in various theoretical debates, the SACP always being the most garrulous, stroked each other's egos and gave long speeches about the need for greater unity. The summit ended with the ANC giving verbal assurances to the SACP and COSATU that the RDP was still alive, that "macro-economic policy is not cast in stone", and a reminder to their allies that the severe "constraints" they faced in government would require patience and political maturity.[25]

Leadership summits are one thing, but the coming together of several thousand worker delegates tends to change the script, and this is exactly what happened a few days later at the sixth COSATU congress. Obviously feeling the need for the line on GEAR to be clearly understood (and taken to heart), the ANC unleashed Mandela on the assembled delegates. He promptly informed them that although aspects of GEAR were negotiable, COSATU was being too "sectoral" in its opposition and that the ANC government could not be held back by the "self-interest" of one sector of the populace.

In response, COSATU president John Gomomo took Mandela to task for being misinformed about agreements on labour legislation and defiantly called the government's macro-economic policy "reverse GEAR".[26]

Speaking to the press after the day's proceedings, COSATU general secretary Sam Shilowa was quick to take up the doublespeak word games. On the one hand, he spoke of unnamed government ministers "treating the Alliance with contempt" and of policies being "driven by technocrats, the bureaucracy and ministries"; on the other, he profusely praised the "strength and relevance" of the Alliance.[27]

The same pattern also began to emerge in relation to the character of the SACP leadership's approach to its relationship with the ANC. While maintaining public opposition to GEAR (that was not without contestation amongst the SACP's Central Committee[28] 29]

The ANC's Fiftieth National Conference (December 16-20, 1997) served to confirm the ANC leadership's mastery of the art of (heavy handed) political management. While allowing for much pre-congress discussion and debate on its still controversial GEAR policies, it ran the congress itself like a corporate stockholders' annual meeting. Congress proceedings were designed to ensure a minimum of ideological and leadership contestation, mixed with a heavy dose of public shows of unity.

However, the real source of the ANC's ability to appear united derived from the leadership's ability to manage the contradictions between pre-congress discussions and the practical implementation of ANC (governmental) policy, guided by congress resolutions. The fact that ideological battles around key issues of ANC economic and political strategy were not reflected in congress resolutions only served to confirm the success of the leadership's political management.[30] 31]

As if on cue, newly elected ANC general secretary Kgalema Montlanthe, the former head of the National Union of Mineworkers, who had been an outspoken opponent of GEAR, indicated publicly that his main task would be to bridge the gap on macro-economic policy between Alliance partners.[32] 33]

While Mbeki probably did not expect his invitation to be taken up so forcefully nor so promptly, the quick-fire release of the SACP's discussion documents in preparation for its Tenth Congress indicated that there still existed an intense opposition, among the rank and file of the SACP (and COSATU), to GEAR and the way in which the ANC had dealt with subsequent debate. Covering everything from macro-economic policy to gender equality, the SACP documents laid out a sustained critique of the character and content of the ANC government's political and economic policies and the ensuing effects on the "movement's" organisational effectiveness.[34] 35]

It did not take long for Mbeki and the ANC leadership to nail their colours to the mast. Within a few days at the end of June 1998, a double-barrelled attack was unleashed in an effort to silence (or, at least quiet) those who, in the eyes of the ANC leadership, were stepping out of line. Mbeki publicly lashed out at Alliance activists who had been campaigning for the release (from a Mozambique jail) of well-known and outspoken ANC member and government official Robert McBride for "compromising the work of the government" and showing "disrespect".[36] 37] Congress.

The timing of the SACP congress was strategically important for both the SACP and ANC (especially in government). Inside the SACP there had been a long-running and intense debate about the relative allegiance of communists to the ANC, against the backdrop of GEAR and increasing conflict between the two organisations at the grassroots level. Questions of leadership loyalties and ideological direction were also high on the agenda. The ANC, on the other hand, was beginning its build-up to the all important 1999 general elections, was confronted with a rapidly declining currency and was under pressure from domestic and international capital to make a categorical commitment to a deracialised capitalism.

With South Africa and much of the world watching, first Mandela and then Mbeki launched virulent attacks against the SACP. A finger-wagging Mandela told the predominately youthful delegates that neither the government nor the ANC would deviate from GEAR, no matter how much the SACP (or COSATU) wished it otherwise. He then informed the SACP that the character and content of its criticism of GEAR (and by inference, the ANC government) were "not acceptable".[38]

The next day, Mbeki, speaking in his capacity as ANC president, embarked on an hour-long assault on the political integrity and organisational raison d'etre of the SACP.[39] the mere wishes of those whose agendas are opposed to ours" (my emphasis). Claiming that the congress discussion documents implied "that the ANC no longer represents the interests of the masses of the people", Mbeki accused the SACP of "spreading falsifications … telling lies … claiming easy victories … fake revolutionary posturing" and joining "defenders of reaction to sustain an offensive against our movement".

As if those charges were not enough, Mbeki then proclaimed that the Alliance was objectively unquestionable:

The struggle for the genuine emancipation of the masses of our people is not over and will not be over for a long period of time … This objective reality means that the basis does not exist for the partners in the Alliance … fundamentally to redefine the relationship among themselves, including the way they handle their differences and contradictions. (My emphasis.)

In essence, Mbeki was commanding the SACP to stop thinking and acting as if it was an independent organisation that had its own political voice and could make its own strategic choices, if it wanted to stay in the Alliance. Concluding, he unilaterally declared that the "death of the ANC, which will not happen, would also mean the death of the rest of the progressive movement in our country". Simply translated, he was telling the SACP that it was nothing, and could be nothing, without the ANC.

The immediate response by the SACP delegates to the speeches was to join in unprecedented, albeit muted, rounds of booing and hissing. There was no doubt that a majority felt both shocked and insulted and were ready and willing to consider radical measures as part of a more sustained response. But such pregnant possibilities for a serious rupture in the Alliance were not about to be entertained by the leadership. While Cronin and SACP Central Committee member Thenjiwe Mtintso responded with light jibes, the SACP leadership was quick to state publicly that "we are more than ever committed to the alliance and to transformation", and that the differences and issues raised could best be addressed "properly at the senior leadership level".[40] 41]

It was clear that SACP leaders had internalised the line contained in the overtly crude, anti-democratic and authoritarian messages delivered by the two most powerful political figures in South Africa. Just like the elite-led, levelling approach of neo-liberalism, the leaders would take care of the details and everything else would merely be about degrees and emphases. Indeed, the significance of what had transpired went well beyond the confines of the SACP and the Alliance, one South African newspaper correctly posing a fundamental (if self-limiting) question: "If communists can't criticise, who can?"[42]

The effects of these events were confirmed in the months after the Congress. Newly elected SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande quickly returned to the well-worn approach that had been used since 1994 to deal with fundamental questions of debate and opposition within the ANC and Alliance:

It is our belief that a break in the Alliance at this point in time would unleash anti-democratic and reactionary forces … [t would] be tantamount to handing over our victory back to the apartheid and neo-apartheid forces. It is for this reason that [the SACP] does not believe in the ultra-left approach of thinking that the only way to strengthen socialist and working class forces in our country is for the SACP and COSATU to break away from the ANC … [the] relationship between the NDR [national democratic revolution] and socialism … has always and continues to inform the relationship between the SACP, the ANC and the progressive trade union movement … It is also this relationship which is the foundation of the Alliance itself … [because] the ANC itself has long understood and affirmed the working class is the main motive force of the South African revolution … the crux of the problem, as far as the SACP is concerned, is a lack of viable and efficient Alliance structures for effective consultations and discussion on key strategic questions facing the movement.[43]

In other words, the approach was to defend the Alliance at all costs, isolate those in the movement who have other ideas, concentrate decision making and political management firmly in the hands of the respective Alliance leaders and keep pleading for the establishment of "proper" structures to do more talking.

Under such a strategic rubric, it was easier for the SACP leadership to blunt continued criticism and opposition within the SACP's ranks centred on questions of the Alliance and the SACP's strategic approach to the socialist struggle, and thus argue that the main problems were ones of process and structure rather than fundamental ideological differences and organisational independence. While there would still be much talk about "honest" and "frank" debate and principled opposition within the Alliance, it was precisely the most controversial focal area of debate and opposition (the character and existence of the Alliance itself) that was being proscribed. Indeed, when a provincial leader of COSATU circulated a discussion document arguing for the Alliance to be broken, and for the establishment of a new workers party, he was brought in front of a disciplinary hearing and severely censured.[44]

What made such an approach all the more contradictory was the continued expression by the SACP (and COSATU) leadership of the need to avoid "suppressing difference and debate".[45]

'Managing contradictions'

"Collisions proceeding from the very conditions of bourgeois society must be fought out to the end; they cannot be conjured out of existence." Frederick Engels[46]

The events of 1998 and their aftermath consolidated the power of the Mbeki-led ANC leadership within both the ANC and the Alliance, a development that spelled danger for a vibrant and participatory "movement" democracy. As the ANC organisational machinery was revved up for the 1999 elections, Mbeki was more determined than ever to ensure conformity to his line, although, this time, he did not face a great deal of intra-Alliance opposition.

The leadership of both COSATU and the SACP dutifully marched to the set beat and cranked up their own organisational machines to support the ANC's electoral campaign. With what appeared to be a very short memory and a taste for the absurd, COSATU leaders unashamedly told their members that the ANC's election manifesto "strongly reasserts the RDP as the basis for government policy" and that workers should accept, at face value, the ANC's promises to "elaborate a detailed programme with its allies".[47] 48]

To bolster what was fast becoming a highly effective strategy and tactics of organisational cooption and ideological amnesia, key leaders in COSATU and the SACP who had, rightly or wrongly, been considered "troublesome" were pulled onto the ANC electoral lists. A few weeks before the elections, COSATU's Sam Shilowa had been "redeployed" to become premier of Gauteng Province (where the ANC and Alliance had been experiencing serious divisions), prompting Shilowa to proclaim publicly that he would now become Mbeki's "yes-man".[49]

Given that all of these men had, to varying degrees over the previous several years, been publicly at the forefront of much of the debate and opposition emanating from the ANC's "junior" Alliance partners, such moves were all the more significant. Each of them knew that he would now have to toe the ANC's political and economic line, a situation that was particularly important in the cases of Cronin and Nqakula, since they continued to be SACP office bearers. In the case of the latter two, it is instructive that there had been no real debate within the ranks of the SACP as to whether elected office bearers should be allowed to maintain their positions while simultaneously being elected and/or appointed ANC politicians. When the elections were over, four out of five of the SACP's national office bearers also held full-time positions as ANC politicians, with only the general secretary being a full-time SACP employee.

The "unity" of the alliance was taking on a different meaning, one that Mbeki, in particular, must have looked upon with a sense of achievement and satisfaction. Through a combination of outright political intimidation, ideological mysticism and cooption (or as those in the Alliance like to call it, "redeployment") of perceived ANC "lefties" and COSATU/SACP leaders into his governmental inner circle, Mbeki had largely succeeded in quashing genuine opposition and controlling the boundaries of debate. In the event, the ANC resoundingly won the June 1999 elections, proving, once again, the powerful effect of the "unity" of the political elite within the Alliance. What was made clear (if this had not already been the case for many cadres in the SACP and COSATU) was that any substantive challenge to the ANC's program of liberal bourgeois democracy and deracialised capitalism would most probably come only when its mass, left flank departed from the Alliance.

Hammering home its post-electoral advantage, the ANC government adopted a tough "new" attitude in public sector wage talks with unions. Refusing to bow to the demands of the unions for an inflation-related increase, ANC minister (and senior SACP leader) Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi told the public sector workers that they were being "infantile", even going so far as to quote Lenin to justify the government's stance.[50]

Feeling under attack and recognising the need to marshal its forces to present a united front on the public sector wage disputes, COSATU called another special congress during late August. As had always been the case, COSATU invited both the ANC president and SACP general secretary to address the congress. If the union federation had been expecting a more conciliatory approach from its ANC ally, it received a rude wake-up call when Mbeki sent ANC national chairperson (and new minister of defence) "Terror" Lekota as the ANC representative to the congress with a clear instruction to give the workers the correct line.

Lekota, who had previously been considered somewhat of a movement radical, and whose candidacy had been supported by COSATU and the SACP at the ANC congress, proceeded to tell COSATU that there was an "art of managing contradictions" and thus, "only consensus positions must be fed to the public" (again, echoing Mbeki's earlier, personal "reflections" on how to deal with internal alliance debate and opposition). Mimicking Mandela's finger-wagging antics at the SACP congress, he sternly warned COSATU that throwing "raw opinions" to the public would only "cause confusion and anarchy" and was "unacceptable" since this would "derail the revolution".[51]

It thus came as no surprise when, a few weeks later, the ANC government unilaterally implemented its public sector wage offer (in effect, undermining COSATU's cornerstone principle of collective wage bargaining). All COSATU could muster was to "express the hope that government would reopen negotiations" and a pledge to embark on a program of mass action over several months.[52]

In the midst of these ANC manoeuvres to further consolidate the ever narrowing "management of contradictions", the ANC-controlled Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council was implementing an unashamedly anti-worker, capitalist plan for the city (Igoli2002), that would either privatise or corporatise most public entities and operations. While making spurious claims of intra-Alliance consultation and genuine negotiations with workers, the council had ridden roughshod over sustained opposition from the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU a leading COSATU affiliate) and the SACP's somewhat maverick Johannesburg Central branch. Knowing full well that the Igoli2002 plan would be the model for all other major urban centres, and thus pose a serious threat to the interests of municipal workers, SAMWU president Petrus Mashishi publicly accused the council's ANC leadership of being a "small elite" that had made an art out of "telling lies".[53]

None of this deterred the ANC from its unilateral approach to deciding what was debatable in its own structures and within the Alliance. When Trevor Ngwane, a popular ANC councillor in Soweto, publicly opposed the Igoli2002 plan (citing the RDP as his major reference point), he was promptly brought in front of an ANC disciplinary hearing and suspended from the organisation for two years. Tellingly, both COSATU and the SACP leadership remained ominously silent, sticking to their increasingly irrelevant calls for more "talks" within the Alliance on Igoli2002.

Not surprisingly, yet another summit was held in December, and just like previous ones, it consisted of lots of talking around prepared discussion documents and public proclamations of enhanced unity and commitments to the Alliance. The agreement, five years after it had initially been proposed, for the setting up of an Alliance political centre to better manage intra-alliance relations, was hailed by all three organisations as a means to relieve "tension" and ensure that all partners "can influence government policy".[54]

And yet, not more than a month later, SACP general secretary Nzimande publicly warned of a "lack of open debate" within the Alliance, which "could result in the creation of patronage and the perpetuation of careerism".[55] 56]

If this was not sufficient to symbolise the impotence that has now come to characterise debate and opposition within the ANC, COSATU and the SACP, then surely the events of the last several months have provided confirmation. The character and content of COSATU's early 2000 mass action campaign against job losses, a continuation of its late-1999 skirmish with government over the public sector dispute, have clearly shown that as long as the ANC leadership's embrace of an elite-led, liberal bourgeois democracy and deracialised capitalism is not challenged fundamentally by a confident and mobilised working class, there will be little chance for meaningful debate and opposition in South Africa.

The strategy and tactics adopted by COSATU and the SACP, as well as those within the ANC who have not approved of the ANC's political and economic path, continue to revolve around seeking to win concessions from the leadership of the ANC within a framework that consistently waters down the demands being made. This approach is ostensibly designed to ensure an acceptable degree of ideological and organisational continuity with the ANC leadership running the country, so as to maintain a "National Democratic Alliance" that is seen as the only viable political/organisational vehicle to meet the needs of the majority.

The reality however, is that while bringing some very moderate relief to that majority, the strategy's most tangible result has been to preserve and advance the personal careers and political futures of leaders across the Alliance spectrum. While making radical-sounding statements on worker-related and political economy issues, combined with limited mass action designed to extract concessions from government and remind private capital of mass power, the leadership of COSATU and the SACP have been unwilling to make the connection between the liberal bourgeois democracy and deracialised capitalism pursued by the ANC elites and the parallel organisational and class lessons in relation to the Alliance.

The binding message that has held this entire edifice together since 1994 has been the constant propagation of the need for unity within the ANC and Alliance. This is counterposed to the dangers of an independent workers' movement and/or political organisation that will break such unity and thus weaken the "liberation movement".

The reality is far different. The kind of unity that ANC and Alliance elites, led by Mbeki, have fashioned is one that revolves around a mass of radical-sounding rhetoric about transformation, a progressive National Democratic Revolution, deepening democracy, a developmental state, workers' interests and the national interest. All the while however, the political and organisational space created has been used to progressively narrow the boundaries of debate and opposition to the chosen line. In the process, the cornerstones of any substantive political and economic democracy (not to mention the struggle for socialism) have been, and continue to be, actively attacked within the ANC and Alliance. Those cornerstones are a critical questioning of the substance behind such rhetoric/policy and mobilisations to challenge and change the political and economic status quo. It is no cliché to say that the struggle will continue.


1. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 7, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1977, p. 243.

2. Michael Levin, Marx, Engels and Liberal Democracy, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1989, p. 140.

3. Levin.

4. See Samir Amin, "The Issue of Democracy in the Contemporary Third World" in Barry Gills, Joel Rocamora and Richard Wilson (eds), Low Intensity Democracy: Political Power in the New World Order, London, Pluto Press, 1993, pp. 59-79.

5. See SACP, Path to Power: Programme of the SACP 8th Congress, Inkululeko Publications, 1989; COSATU, Social Equity and Job Creation (1993)

6. Patrick Bond, Elite Transition: From Apartheid to Neoliberalism in South Africa, London, Pluto Press, 2000.

7. See Dale T. McKinley, The ANC and the Liberation Struggle: A Critical Political Biography, London, Pluto Press, 1997.

8. Neville Alexander, Some Are More Equal Than Others: Essays on the transition in South Africa, Cape Town, Buchu Books, 1993, p. 83.

9. See "Strike: COSATU flexes muscles in alliance", Weekly Mail, October 22-28, 1993.

10. Mike Van Graan, "We want culture, not commissars", Weekly Mail, May 7-13, 1993.

11. There were a few minority voices emanating from the ranks of COSATU that attacked the RDP as a step backward for workers and the poor. See, for example, Roger Etkind and Sue Harvey, "The workers cease fire", South African Labour Bulletin, Vol.17, No.5 (1993), pp. 84-87.

12. All subsequent references taken from Thabo Mbeki, "From Resistance to Reconstruction: Tasks of the ANC in the New Epoch of the Democratic Transformation Unmandated Reflections", unpublished mimeograph, August 9, 1994.

13. Ben Fine, "Politics and Economics in ANC Economic Policy An Alternative Assessment"', Transformation, No. 25 (1994), p. 30.

14. SACP, Strategic Perspectives, Document from the Ninth Congress, April 6-8, 1995.

15. SACP, "The Need for an Effective ANC-led Political Centre", A Tripartite Alliance Summit Discussion Document, The African Communist, Third Quarter (1995), pp. 7-16. See also SACP, "Defending and deepening a clear Left Strategic Perspective of the RDP", The African Communist, Third Quarter (1995), pp. 29-37.

16. For a brief but incisive left critique of the main points contained in GEAR see: Dale T. McKinley, Langa Zita and Vishwas Satgar (SACP National Political Education Secretariat), "Critique of Government's Macroeconomic Strategy: Growth Employment and Redistribution", June 1996.

17. SACP Central Committee, "Press Release on Government's New Macro-Economic Policy" (June 1996).

18. Mondli Makhanya, "Death of dissent within the ANC", Star, August 12, 1996.

19. Gaye Davis, "'Authoritarian' leadership alarms ANC politicians", Mail and Guardian, October 4-10, 1996.

20. SACP, "Let us not lose sight of our strategic priorities", The African Communist, First Quarter, 1997, pp. 4-20.

21. Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin, "We need transformation not a balancing act looking critically at the ANC Discussion Document", pp. 62-70.

22. COSATU, "Discussion Paper A Draft Programme for the Alliance", (November 1996).

23. The author personally experienced such tactics, following the circulation of a discussion document within Alliance structures entitled "GEAR and Class Struggle", which attacked the content of GEAR and criticised the left in the Alliance for not struggling and organising against its implementation. See also: Dale T. McKinley. "Sounding the Retreat: The Left and the Macroeconomic battle in South Africa", Links, No.8 (July-October 1997), pp.115-25.

24. Bertrand Russell, Power, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1962, p. 206.

25. "Salvaging the Alliance", Editorial, Business Day, September 3, 1997. The call for "maturity" was set against what was to be considered as "'infantile" opposition and debate, a word that was to be used several times to refer to those who voiced serious, vigorous and sustained opposition to the policies of the leadership.

26. Renee Grawitzky, "Mandela put on defensive by COSATU", Business Day, September 17, 1997.

27. Vuyo Mvoko, "COSATU not considering quitting the alliance"', Op. cit. ???

28. There were several Central Committee members who were, by now, at the centre of government powerbroking, including Essop Pahad, Sydney Mufamadi, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Ronnie Kasrils, Alec Erwin and Jeff Radebe.

29. SACP, "Now more than ever build the Alliance", The African Communist, Fourth Quarter, 1997, pp. 1-3.

30. See Dale T. McKinley, "The ANC's 50th Conference: Power to Whom?", Southern Africa Report, Vol. 13, No.2 (March 1998), pp. 10-1.

31. ANC, "Resolution on the Tripartite Alliance", ANC Fiftieth National Conference, December 1997.

32. Wally Mbhele, "From unionist to ANC boss" Electronic Mail & Guardian, February 25, 1998.

33. Renee Grawitzky, "Mbeki wants ANC members to be critical", Business Day, March 30, 1998.

34. See The African Communist, Second Quarter, 1998.

35. Charlene Smith, "Watch out, we could end up with a Mugabe, warns SACP", Saturday Star, May 22, 1998.

36. Stephen Laufer, "Mbeki castigates activists campaigning for release of McBride", Business Day, June 26, 1998.

37. Lukanyo Mnyanda and William Mervin Gumede, "ANC tells COSATU to jump in a lake", Sunday Independent, June 29, 1998.

38. "Statement of President Mandela at SACP 10th Congress" (July 1, 1998), unpublished mimeograph.

39. All subsequent references from: "Statement of ANC President Mbeki at SACP 10th Congress" (July 2, 1998), unpublished mimeograph.

40. Sechaba ka'Nkosi and Rehad Desai, "Moment of Truth for SACP", Mail and Guardian, July 1-6, 1998.

41. SACP, "Declaration of the 10th SACP Congress" (July 5, 1998), unpublished mimeograph.

42. "If communists can't criticise, who can?", Editorial, Mail and Guardian, July 1-6, 1998.

43. Blade Nzimande, "The Role of the SACP in the Alliance Our Vision of Socialism", The African Communist, Third Quarter, 1998, pp. 3-9.

44. John Appolis, "'It is Time for a New Political Party" (1998), unpublished mimeograph. Appolis, a senior leader in the Chemical Workers' Industrial Union, remained in his position but was told that any other such initiative would result in his firing.

45. SACP, "Handling differences within the people's camp", Discussion document (January 1999).

46. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 7, p. 149.

47. "Why Workers should vote ANC: Message from cosatu CEC" (April-May 1999), booklet.

48. SACP, "June 2 Elections A platform for accelerated transformation", The African Communist, Second Quarter, 1999.

49. Jimmy Seepe. "Shilowa: Mbeki's yes-man", Sowetan, May 5, 1999.

50. This happened during an interview with Fraser-Moleketi on national radio during the wage negotiations with the unions.

51. "Statement by ANC National Chairperson Lekota to COSATU Special Congress" (August 18, 1999).

52. Irene Louw, "COSATU backs down as Mbeki slams door on negotiations", Sunday World, October 19, 1999.

53. Petrus Mashishi, "Opposition grows to Igoli2002", Sunday Business Report, October 10, 1999.

54. Renee Grawitzky, "ANC Forum set up to oil Alliance", Business Day, December 13, 1999.

55. Blade Nzimande, "Speech to Memorial Service on the Anniversary of Joe Slovo's death" (January 30, 2000), unpublished mimeograph.

56. Blade Nzimande, "Towards a Socialist South Africa", Mail and Guardian, February 18-24, 2000.

Dr Dale T. McKinley was employed at the South African Communist Party head office from 1995 until January 2000. He has also held elected positions in the SACP at branch, district and provincial levels. Presently, he is an independent writer and researcher.