South Africa: Was 2014 the year of 'radical transformation'?

By Dale McKinley, Johannesburg

December 10, 2014 --, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- Breaking news! In case you missed it, 2014 was the first full year of South Africa’s "radical second phase" of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR).

Apparently, we are now well into a nation-wide process of "radical transformation" that is definitively putting the country on a "new growth and development path".

For a moment at least, forget about the return of rolling blackouts, the record-breaking wealth and conspicuous consumption of the rich, the ongoing crisis of local government service delivery, the palpable intensification of racial discord, the invasions of parliament by armed riot police, the split within the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the continuing epidemic of corruption and fraud within both the public and private sectors, the increasingly out-of-control conduct of our police force and many of the other defining features and events of 2014.

According to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and more especially the South African Communist Party (SACP), most all of these hallmarks of this past year are the unfortunate legacies of an evidently non-radical first phase of the NDR, spanning all the way back to 1994. What our political rulers are telling us is that even though their first phase laid the political and social foundations for a "united, democratic and non-racial" South Africa, the underlying structural (read: economic) problems were not fundamentally addressed.

As such, a "radical transformation" is required which can, in the words of the SACP, “advance a decisive transition (from the present) subordinate capitalist growth path … to a new growth and development path”.

However, when one takes a closer look beyond such generalised and oft-repeated observations and statements it becomes clear that there is nothing really "radical" about this professed "second phase transformation" at all.

First of all, the entire notion of a"‘radical second phase" is hopelessly riven with conceptual contradiction. When the idea was officially mooted at the ANC’s 2012 Policy Conference it was stated that, “we are not speaking about a second stage”. Considering that the two-stage theory of revolution (wherein the second stage will usher in a non-capitalist transition) has been, and, continues to be, the guiding theory of the ANC and SACP, what then is really being proffered is a second phase within the (deracialised capitalist) first stage.

Stay with me.

The dictionary definition of radical is "of or going to the root or origin". If, as according to the ANC and SACP, the root of South Africa’s problems are structural then a radical approach to addressing them would necessarily have to be centred on forging a non-capitalist "growth and development path". But this is practically and politically impossible if the entire approach is conceptually located within a first stage that is, as per the theory, fundamentally embedded in and defined by capitalist social and economic relations.

Even if the biggest cheerleaders of the "radical second phase", the SACP, can’t see it themselves, they have already confirmed this fundamental contradiction by admitting (in their words) that the persisting structural problems “of South Africa’s productive economy have been further entrenched since 1994”. In turn, the SACP says that this has resulted in “private monopoly capital (being) the principal beneficiary of our hard won democratic breakthrough”; even if this is itself in direct contradiction to the SACP and ANC’s consistent claims over the last 20 years that the working class and poor have been the prime beneficiaries of their political rule.

In other words, the “further entrenchment” of South Africa’s “subordinate capitalist growth path” has happened precisely because of the ANC and SACP’s adherence to the two-stage theory. Put differently, the ANC and SACP want to try and "roll back" what they themselves helped to "roll up" (and continue to do so) in the first place.

In practical terms then, all that the "second phase" -- of the first stage -- can do is to try and "transform" capitalism to work better for the working class and poor masses. The SACP admits as much when it claims that “many of its (the ‘second radical phase’) key elements are already under implementation … what is required is a more decisive and more coherent effort.” This is akin to addressing a root (cause) by attempting to better manipulate and manage the root (cause) itself; a political and ideological Gordian knot if ever there was one.

Besides these essential conceptual and practical contradictions though, there is an even more foundational problem with the way in which the ANC and SACP understand and thus frame "radical transformation". The crucial element entirely missing is the "other half" of the structural root itself -- that is, human agency and behaviour. This is made up of our personal ethos, values and principles and whether we do or do not adhere to them as well as how we apply them, in the practical realm of both our personal and work/public lives.

More specifically, in the contemporary South African context this relates to fundamental issues such as: corruption, racism, greed, rejection of legitimate dissent, consciously ignoring democratic processes and decisions, sexism, xenophobia, general criminal behaviour, the arrogance of power and an unwillingness to personally accept and societally enforce the consequences of all the above.

In the ANC and SACP’s world of "radical transformation" these core components of the other half of the structural equation are unfortunately but predictably seen as mere by-products of an inherited system and/or the preserve of a few bad apples. They are not as they should be, seen as foundational to the problems of inequality, of abuse of power, of reproduction of a range of social and economic oppressions and of popular anger and frustration at being marginalised and taken for granted.

As such, it is not surprising that the "answers/solutions" are completely focused on a specific systemic component (the economy) and consequentially getting the policy/state/governance mix right. Personal and/or public leadership explanations are rejected as peripheral even as an almost divine right to lead is constantly invoked. This crucially fails to realise that any "radical transformation" must start with those who are supposedly leading it.

If those who claim to be the prime champions of the drive for "radical transformation" are unwilling to radically transform themselves, then what we are left with is a never-ending cycle of mutually reflected systemic stasis. Put simply, the purported structural transformation will (as it always has) end up in pretty much the same place and space as that which it intends to transform.

Welcome 2015.

[Dale McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.]