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The ANC’s “second transition”: promise, threat or propaganda?


The chain-reaction set off by the release of the ANC policy discussion documents last week, the foundation course for the party’s “second transition”, was to be expected.

Headlines and tweets speak of “mining grabs”, “resource nationalism”, a “full scale attack” on the constitution, and the “path to a failed state”. Some say it is a “dire threat”, others “mere propaganda”. The Wall Street Journal characterises it as “South Africa’s Worrisome Turn” (we’re always on the road to Zimbabwe as far as the world is concerned).

We live in contested space, both ideologically and physically. There is no paucity of debate. We may be made uncomfortable by it, but setting the bar a little lower we should take heart after looking at the nature of discussions raging in other countries. In the USA, the Republican presidential candidate debates resemble a reality TV show about everything but reality. In the Arab world, the citizenry is still trying to interpret the word of God to make its laws while being sandwiched (if not eaten) between the military and the clerics. In beleaguered Europe, distant technocrats do their own thing leaving the people to protest futilely or amuse themselves with their many material distractions.

We have fewer distractions here, except for our unhappy past that is always ready to cast our public debates in shadow. Hiding in those shadows is fear, anger and always race. South Africans need to guard against allowing such shadow play to lead the country into disastrous policy decisions. One of the most tragic consequences was how historical grievance, paranoia, and obedience to the party allowed AIDS to take hold of the country. I hope it haunts the ANC for the rest of its days; they can never say, “We know better, be quiet”.

One has simply to look at the crucial revisions which public objections brought about in the Protection of State Information Bill to know that this government, like any other – whether Japanese or Canadian – is never to be left to its own devices.

The documents have been read by some sectors in the light of the irrational forces once again at work in ANC rhetoric around the constitution and the judiciary, while disguising very rational vested interests beavering away in other areas, notably political ambition and our most robust economic activity – corruption.

Nationalisation is a good example. Invoking one interpretation of the Freedom Charter, Julius Malema called for outright state ownership and rejected any expert investigation. His mind was made up; he didn’t want to be confused with facts.

When I asked Minister for Public Enterprises Malusi Gigaba what he thought of this, he said the investigating team appointed was “made up of  experts not ideologues – Thank God!”. NUMSA has now come out rejecting the panel’s findings; for being emotionally unsatisfactory one presumes.

Overall, the ANC, though not averse to using irrational opinion like any political party, must be credited for charting the course to date with thought-through positions. (Yet reasonable minds can differ on the direction, which is why, my president, we have dissenting opinions in Constitutional Court cases.)

The ANC authored one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, treated its mortal enemies with great humanness, and it has as yet not caved in to either ill-conceived Africanist or Marxist positions. It has steadfastly stuck to principles on such unpopular measures as human rights for homosexuals and the abolition of the death penalty (which it signed up to already in the 1980s) among others. When it comes to policies, the party has been as broadminded and as pragmatic.

As an entity, the ANC is about as revolutionary as England. Luthuli House therefore rends its garments in public when accused of seeking to undo the democratic order. (But what does it expect when it has a leadership that has spent so much of its time in the public spotlight hauled before the courts on criminal charges?)

I tend to agree with analyst Steven Friedman that the trove of ANC policy discussion papers just released although high on rhetoric will be slow and modest in implementation, certainly very changed by the time they become law.

But when FW de Klerk comments that the ANC is seeking to sweep away the national consensus, and he darkly warns the ANC intends to recreate the country in the mould of China (and rather quaintly uses the phrase “and its friends in Cuba”), he is accused of “ringing the usual liberal scarecrow bells”. The former deputy president of the first democratic South Africa is merely reacting to the ANC itself punting this as a “watershed” moment.

Although the documents are up for discussion, they clearly set an agenda. If you walk into the theatre and there is a gallows on stage with a noose, you have some idea of what play to expect; it is not going to be a pantomime. There are other possibilities naturally – the rope will break and it will be a happy ending. Trust us, says every government, as they position your feet on the scaffold. “We’d much prefer it if you wore a blindfold.”

The overall tenure of the current presidency, which sends its acolytes for political education in China (enamoured as it is by state capitalism, though notably not its execution of officials for corruption), which has attacked the Constitutional Court with “clumsy statements by some comrades”, which is pushing the “Secrecy Bill”, the “Stasi Bill”, a media tribunal, and has put Jimmy Manyi (a man so devoted to the cause he should have been used up as a kamikaze pilot) in charge of press relations, is discouraging.

To appropriate Žižek’s colourful characterization of Occupy Wall Street, in psychoanalytic terms, civil society protests provoke the ANC master as if they were the outbursts of a hysterical woman, undermining his authority. He wants to hit her, and he shouts: “Behave or shut up!” He doesn’t want to deal with the causes, for inevitably he is the cause of her distress and sometime hallucinations.

Thus the SACP continually launches attacks on “unaccountable civil society” and “anti-majoritarian constitutionalism” (conveniently forgetting it was civil society in the USA and Europe that forced their governments to impose sanctions against apartheid; today it is business and NGOs and not the state most helping the Young Communist League to distribute sanitary pads for its school campaigns).

Nor should the alliance deflect criticism by pointing to the hypocrisy of its critics, even if it is tempting and quite correct to point out that the apartheid regime totally mismanaged the economy, was corrupt up to its eyeballs, and morally bankrupt. It should rather answer in good faith the questions raised in public debate beyond its own structures.

Are the 12 ANC policy documents the apostles of a new order (Minister Jeff Radebe called whoever leaked the documents to the press Judas Iscariot)? Or is it just so much more hot air, like the National Democratic Revolution itself?

As the M&G reported the thoughts of the ANC policy wonks were quickly watered down to better cohere with the blueprint of the National Planning Commission. Alarm was spreading to the markets.

On the positive side, the second transition taken together with the infrastructural plan tries to claw back some legitimacy for a party out of touch with the people and increasingly equated with elite economic interests.

The danger is that the issues become politicised and start to feed into the ANC leadership intrigues, with Malema toyi-toying on the bandwagon as he did at the Cosatu march (which compared to his own attempt at an “economic freedom” march put him to shame).

The ANC seems to envision a bigger party-state (a nightmare scenario given its capacities and competence) accountable only to the quinquennial ballot box (which is hopelessly inadequate electoralism). Participation of the private sector is seen as “inevitable” rather than desirable.

An aggressive, coercive state is not the answer. The consociationalism of Mauritius would be a far better model to emulate.


Two other success stories of co-operation from the world might serve as inspiration.

When Barbados went into financial meltdown in the early 1990s (not dissimilar to Greece now), the government got unions and employers together to try and convince the IMF to bail it out without devaluing the currency and imposing austerity measures (which had destroyed the other island economies in crisis around it).

In the words of one key union leader, “We took a patriotic stance”. Labour agreed to an 8% cut across the board.

The mercantile community agreed to fix their retail rates. They watched profit margins erode, but they kept in business. The state introduced rules such as no two breadwinners could be retrenched in one household. Pension funds voluntarily repatriated their foreign holdings. Labour, employers and government formed a solid partnership. All took some pain.

By contrast, Jamaica forged no such broad pact. Its charismatic leader pushed through radical and very popular (with the masses) economic policies. The middle class fled and took their money and skills with them. The economy shrank by 2% per annum for the next 15 years. Tax revenues dwindled; debt ballooned. Today Jamaica has recovered somewhat; it is 79th on the UN Human Development Index, but Barbados is 47th  (South Africa is 123rd).

Another example comes from Germany. From 2002, its unemployment rate began to soar above the European Union average, peaking at 11.5%.

Dr Peter Hartz, former human resources director at Volkswagen (he was once convicted of bribing union leaders) was tasked with finding a solution. He came up with mini-jobs – employ workers for short periods, a few hours at a time for additional help, with the maximum they can earn set at 400 Euros per month, but tax free. The powerful German unions agreed. Largely thanks to the unpopular “Hartz reforms” Germany’s unemployment rate stands today at 5.5%. The European Union average and France’s unemployment rate (where no leeway was given by unions) is nearly double, at 9.9%.

In South Africa we must hope political posturing won’t trump co-operation. It’s too early to say, but the documents are not a promising start. The space to watch will be the policy conference in June in Mangaung.

Follow Brent on Twitter.


  • Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary Coloured (Human & Rouseau, 2007) and Reports Before Daybreak (Umuzi-Random House, 2011). He has been writing for the Mail & Guardian since 2003. Follow him on Twitter or visit


  1. Dave Harris Dave Harris 11 March 2012

    “promise, threat or propaganda?”
    I think its a little of each depending on your perspective. Its a “promise” to our people that things will get better, a “threat” to most beneficiaries of apartheid (BOA) and “propaganda” to our media mafia.

    “The ANC authored one of the most progressive constitutions in the world”
    What misinformation! The ANC and supporters of the National Party NEGOTIATED this document while the “Third Force” was formenting black-on-black violence. Mandela was greatly angered at the white regime for employing this evil tactic. btw. The use of the Third Force is a typical short term strategy by the colonial masters hastily exiting the liberated country.
    This is why we need to revisit the Constitution to ensure it reflects the will of the people. EVERY democracy on the planet has done so.

    Your comparisons to Mauritius, Jamacia, Barbados, Germany etc. are disingenuous and bizarre, knowing how different these countries are from us. It seems like you’re clutching at straws trying to build a straw-man argument against economic liberation in our lifetime. As a BOA, your idea of economic prosperity is most likely out of step with the landless majority suffering from generations of unemployment, discrimination and lack of resources.

  2. Kimon Paxinos Kimon Paxinos 11 March 2012

    The transition can only be one of two things: a) a pact to grow the economy and jobs [wealth for all] or b) forced redistribution of wealth [wealth for fewer] – the probable outcome making human and financial capital take flight. The Jamaica scenario. The critical element here is the ANC’s appetite to emerge from its Mbeki style denial-ism, accept that its state management capacity is poor and launch sane policies reflecting this reality that win the support of business, labour and international capital. But power retention within the ANC may be a more potent driver and until the ANC can consolidate their internal political power, policies popular to the proletariat electorate will perpetuate. The result: A split ANC. The dilemma is short-term power based on populist policy or long-term power based on a growing economy in turn based on a private sector compact. if the ANC cannot gracefully accept its failings, it cannot engage with domestic and foreign capital and grow this economy. This has never entered Jimi Munyi’s consciousness. Either an ANC split will return policy makers to reality or it will have to reign in the dissenting groups within the party. Either option an audacious challenge!

  3. Rich Rich 11 March 2012

    A sensible article. Can you not slip this into the Mangaung dossier to be distributed to the delegates? I live in hope.

  4. Molotov Molotov 11 March 2012

    “The ANC authored one of the most progressive constitutions in the world”. Not exactly – the progressive constituion was a lucky accident brought about by a one set of declining racial nationalists, who had some progressive leanings, and another set of ascendant racial nationalists who always had a soft spot for totalitarianism, party states and the total dominance of the state over the (very unfree) individual. Authored by the ANC? Hardly.

  5. Judith Judith 11 March 2012

    Staying stuck in the community destruction box of pollution is not going to assist us in moving forward. Right now we are killing people, destroying water, air and land with pollution as well and not creating jobs that can fix these problems.

    Government has to move into assisting and providing seed funding for solutions instead of vacillating

  6. Mariano Castrillon Mariano Castrillon 11 March 2012

    Unions do not always have the best interests of workers in mind. Time and time again they have proved to be so inflexible that it has been easier for businesses to close down rather than to allow the workers to become the “owners” of the business. If the entrepreneur does not make a profit, there is no point in having a business.Furthermore, unions stress the rights of workers only, never, ever their obligations.

  7. Loudly Safrican Loudly Safrican 12 March 2012

    “The ANC authored one of the most progressive constitutions in the world” – Please do not re-write history. The ANC is very keen on airbrushing others’ contribution (remember the spat with the PAC over who organised the march that became “Sharpville”?). The ANC only CO-authored the Constitution (which they are now trying to undermine). Those two letter make a helluva difference.

    More substantially, this article does not explain what we are “transitioning” towards.
    As the Western Cape has shown, the present Constitution does not prevent service delivery.

    As for more statism, the state departments the ANC now runs are dysfunctional (apart from ministerial vehicle procurement); the state-owned enterprises all make losses (er, decapitalisation for SAA). Countries that have been split into statist and free market (Vietnam, Germany, Korea) have demonstrated which system creates more jobs and wealth. (Spiegel reports South Korea proposing a EUR 55 million unification fund).

    It is not its Constitution that SA needs to “transition”, but its government.

  8. siphomx siphomx 12 March 2012

    a refreshing analysis of the state our dominant political party. Unlike the hysteric noise emanating from our “so called political analyst”from this paper, this was a mature, sombre and balanced piece. I can’t wait to read another article written by Brent Meersman. His cogent analysis has shed light for us in the quagmire that is the South Africa political space.

  9. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 12 March 2012

    The ANC never intended to keep the constitution anyway. Within a few weeks of the final constitution being signed and De Klerk walking out of the Unity Government in relief, Mandela was threatening to break it by withholding funds to Kwa-Zulu Natal (ref: Tony Leon’s autobiography).

    They were COMMUNISTS and believed in a 2 stage revolution –

    Stage One: Invite suckers in to “invest”

    Stage Two: Nationalise the assets of the suckers.

    The trouble is that stage one did not work. Other people had also read “Das Kapital” by Marx.

  10. Neuren Pietersen Neuren Pietersen 12 March 2012

    History lesson for Dave – our constitution was only promulgated in 1996 and not during Codesa as you seem to be suggesting.

  11. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 12 March 2012

    The ANC whined around the world that they were excluded fom participating in the white Homeland of South Africa, but were stuck in tribal Homelands (given them by the Brits).

    So why have they not abolished these Homelands that they hated so much, now that they control the country?

    Why is a third of the people, and the agricultural land, of South Africa still under the mis-rule of patriarchial tribal chiefs?

  12. Obzino Latino Obzino Latino 12 March 2012

    The media has made it a crime through scare tactics for ANC to comment and consider review of its hard won democracy for some obvious opportunistic reasons – even in the face of growing inequalities and disillusionment within our communities. According to the mainstream media and its handlers, nothing should change, our democracy is fine, wealth must stay where it used to be pre-1994, it must never be shared because the ANC and its black masses can’t handle it in anyway.

    A lot must change in South African mainstream economy and it must happened as urgently as now to avoid the worse. Let the ANC not be intimidated nor be stubborn in the face of clear scientific early warning indicators just to please an ever fearful and unreconciling tiny white segment of our big population. Lets quickly look east in Asia and also in Latin America and begin to take tough policy stands.

  13. Peter Joffe Peter Joffe 12 March 2012

    South Africa is a country where those who ‘work for a living’ are vastly outnumbered by those who ‘vote for a living’. I never wrote this piece but it is the best few words that I have ever seen that adequately state why African Democracies are the farce that they are.

  14. MLH MLH 12 March 2012

    Agree. Meersman has his ducks in a row and Part 2 explains coherently for those too obtuse to understand Part 1.

  15. The Creator The Creator 12 March 2012

    Neuren, the 1996 Constitution is essentially a photostat of the 1993 Constitution. It was just re-ratified because we didn’t have a Constitutional Assembly in 1993. (And, probably, to give Cyril Ramaphosa, big business’s Presidential candidate, a chance to pretend he’d had a success.)

    The answer to the question is: propaganda. Zuma is not going to rock the boat in any serious way, he’s just trying to fool the rubes into not realising that he’s a sock-puppet for multinational capital and NATO. And because he’s not very bright, he thinks he’s done that.

  16. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 12 March 2012

    All foreign ownship of land, like by the Arabs and the Chinese, is guarenteed by Bi-lateral agreements with their countries.

    Black Homelands are still exclusive Black only, with no rights for whites or browns.

    ONLY white land owned by South Africans is not protected.

  17. Kwame Kwame 12 March 2012

    What preceded the Constitutional document was Codesa which brought on board a ‘negotiated settlement’. Certain clauses such as the ‘private property’ clause crept their way into the constitution as a result. We can’t hold our future generations tied up to these ‘negotiated settlements’ for much longer. Our Constitution provides for a democratic process led by the ANC, that can give effect to any constitutional ammendments that the majority desires.

  18. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 12 March 2012


    You don’t support “private property”?

    Do you support communal ownership then, like in the Homelands?

  19. Reducto Reducto 12 March 2012

    @Kwame: You are uninformed. You blame the property clause when it is the ANC government who has stuck by willing-buyer-willing-seller, when in fact the property clause allows for far more radical land reform:

    How can people talk about amending the property clause when the ANC government hasn’t even attempted to push the bounds of what the clause allows? Willing-buyer-willing-seller IS NOT, and I repeat, IS NOT, part of the property clause!

  20. Jan Hofmeyr Jan Hofmeyr 12 March 2012

    The problem with SA politics is that it keeps playing out like a bad soap opera (or any soap). And as in any soap, the next scene sees julius malema make a massive comeback at Mangaung.

  21. Tofolux Tofolux 13 March 2012

    @Brent, I really dont know why anyone would take FW de Klerk seriously? I mean the man’s track record, as we know it, is abysmal. He was a willing partner for decades in a system that was barbaric and inhumane. Not only was he corrupt, he was a liar. This is his track record and now he is being regurgitated as a guru (on what)? Anyway, HIV/AIDS was not produced by ANC. Many countries all over the world, struggled with this pandemic and NOT to recognise our own efforts, especially under the current health minister IS disengenous. But let me say or ask you. since when must a ruling party consult or ask those who did not vote for them, permission to proceed with what the majority who has voted for them, to implement policies that will change the lives of the poor. I noticed that you never mention our poverty, or our challenges in terms of this poverty, or even the triple poverty challenges that some of us face. We live in a developmental state, A state of which started of with ENDEMIC corruption in govt. ANC did NOT produce corruption in the state. The STATE of FW DE KLERK was CORRUPT to BEGIN WITH. Look at the wild-life and diamond smuggling of the SAPS under apartheid govt. Furthermore, I am not sure why those who do not vote for ANC are so preoccupied with ANC. If you do not agree with its policies, then strengthen DA’s policies. Point is, DA has virtually no intellectual comprehension of its role, other than to be an opposition party and to protect certain interests.

  22. Tofolux Tofolux 13 March 2012

    @Berri & Reduction, there are many contradictions in the constitution that is not in line with the various laws of this country.Ok, I know you are going to need some time to wrap that around your head.Also, there are many contradictions in the constitution that is not in line with what it was intended to be… do you need some time on that too? As a hint, can I ask if you think that we are all equal before the law? especially before the constitutional law? I ask this and will allow you to think about your answer. Also, the land question as I have warned before, is going to be THE issue. Premised on the grievances of many land-less people, is the land grab, by the previous regimes. No one can dispute that we had land grabs, and Berri as per your own analogy it would be the same land grab such as in Zimbabwe that white farmers in this country benefitted. Also it is contended that these farmers did NOT PAY for this land-grab with their own money, but with money given/loaned (you will claim) by the land bank. I am not sure if you or et al would acknowledge the interventions by various agricultural boards and land bank etc to promote the interest of boers/farmers. Furthermore, one must also seek redress in the unwarranted access and ownership of prime property by certain minority groups. I would warn you that there are some agitating that these properties BE GIVEN back to the state for R1. Why, simply because you have enjoyed unwarranted rights to stolen property.

  23. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 13 March 2012


    Once again – please quote the sources for your allegations.

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