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South Africa’s democratic project: Managing the battles within

By Thapelo Tselapedi

It is interesting to note that SACP secretary-general Blade Nzimande, in contrast to Kgalema Motlanthe, has spoken rather favourably about the concept of a second transition. In an interview with Mandy Rossouw from City Press, Nzimande made the ‘revelation’ that “the deepening of our democracy cannot be taken any further if we don’t change the economic power relations”. Using Brett Murray’s painting as an illustration of a “faction of the white population” taking “reconciliation as a weakness”, he says that the second transition is an issue of “democratic power” and partly an attempt to defeat those who seek “to steal the organisation”. Though this makes one wonder how Brett Murray’s painting illustrates this perceived reality, this plan contains implications that need to be explored.

While the second transition is, I argue, a fitting description of what should arguably be the next phase in South Africa’s socio-economic trajectory, my own observations are that the argument currently used for a second transition merely serves to displace the actual issues. Furthermore, it also masks the political subjectivities that interpret the objective reality. I will explain this later on. Firstly, and most importantly, at the dawn of South Africa, the alliance made no serious attempts to build community structures that emerged during the 80s and 90s. In fact, popular structures, then, were encouraged to mobilise and organise structures of the ANC, thus foiling the democratic project which the SACP secretary-general now wants to make an argument for, and, worse so, in a state-centred, top-to-bottom form.

Secondly, the attempts to turn the Freedom Charter into a socialist project, difficult as it is, is indicative of the party, when in the ANC, to distinguish itself from the ANC’s political trajectory. Therefore, the blurred lines between the two organisations enables socialist discourse to masquerade as ANC thinking – a battle now successfully in the public light. As a result, we need to seriously ask ourselves who the actual thieves are! Thirdly, however, we must ask ourselves to what extent has the executive directly challenged the historical issue of land redistribution? Whilst not all of us will agree with the socio-economic rights regime that Chapter 2, Section 25 of the Constitution outlines, we all need to be clear about the diagnosis and the remedies that should possibly follow.

Lastly, in a 2004 review of Neville Alexander’s An Ordinary Country: Issues in the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy, Pallo Jordan said that “submitting to the temptation to characterise [this] – 1994 settlement – as a ‘sell-out’ is not merely puerile, but also sterile.” He went on to say that, “Not surprisingly, those political formations that have yielded to this temptation find it difficult to make themselves relevant in the post-1994 political terrain.” Though Jordan was referring to “white ultra-right revanchism”, I’d like to refer to the triumph in Polokwane as left revanchism: meaning instead of regaining lost territory, the South African mainstream left is attempting to regain lost policy ground as manifested in the second transition, if not many of the current ANC discussion documents. Therefore, in a painful twist of narrative, the party has equally poisoned itself by participating in stakeholder politics.

It is through this, I argue, that we can begin to understand how the Polokwane conference allegedly brought a change in government – contemporary analysis seems to focus from the 2009 period as if the 1994–2007 period did not lay any foundation. This is simply because the then opponents of the alleged 1996 class project have now, being in power, responded with the second transition: building a national democratic society and the balance of forces in 2012. One can’t really blame the communists; after all, the socio-economic regime proposed in the ANC discussions documents contains transformative reforms. But, yes, there is nothing wrong with the need to deepen democracy. Equally, there is nothing wrong with wanting to shift “the balance of forces” towards the poor, but what betrays and belies this project is the seemingly corrupt and lack of ethical leadership that now wields state power. But there’s more here.

The left revanchist project, emerging from the party’s attempt to swell the ANC, has meant that South Africa’s democracy is currently not being properly managed – the party’s attempt to exert policy and intellectual power over the ANC, while underway, is a precarious project. However, we must also ask whether the “balance of forces” now weighs on the side of the progressives. The political subjectivities, here, as I see them, is that exerting this type of influence over the ANC will not translate into a deepening of South Africa’s democracy but will, because of its current transitional nature, collapse the identity of the ANC. Conservative and illiberal proposals are being bandied around as though the 1994 political project was a mistake. Though these dishonest elements seek to position themselves during this transition, the equally dangerous task of exerting influence is untenable. How ever the country’s democracy unfolds, South Africa’s democratic project still depends on the health of the ANC.

Thapelo Tselapedi is a research and advocacy officer at the Socio-economic Research Institute (SERI) of South Africa. He writes this article in his personal capacity.