William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Limping towards the socialist revolution

There are few functioning economies where there still could be a serious discussion on the desirability of a socialist revolution. That it remains a topic of earnest debate in South Africa is sad evidence of arrested mental development.

This week it was John Kane-Berman, head of the SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), who reignited the debate over the African National Congress’ commitment towards a so-called “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR). In terms of this “colonialism of a special type” thesis, western imperialism was in SA translated into white and black, with “white” wealth the result always of exploitation, never enterprise.

“This made white wealth illegitimate in the eyes of the NDR, a fact ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema understood perfectly,” says Kane-Berman. Consequently, government’s attacks on the media and the judiciary are “entirely predictable” moves to realise the ANC’s “master plan” — developed during the 1960s Soviet era — to overturn the Constitution.

As evidence of this, Kane-Berman cites the erosion of property rights — proposals to abandon the willing-seller/willing-buyer principle — cadre deployment, moves towards nationalisation, moves to curb the media, and to seize control of the judiciary. There is also Correctional Services Deputy Minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi who recently told an interviewer that the Constitution is but a “staging post on the way to the NDR”.

Kane-Berman revives old nightmares. Prior to 1994, the NDR rhetoric, with its commitment to “continuing struggle” and calculated exploitation at the right moment of the “balance of forces” to achieve its redistributionist aims, featured large in white society’s view of the ANC as a dangerous, communist stalking horse.

Following the relatively painless adoption of a largely market-driven liberal democracy in 1994, most opponents of the ANC came to assume that the NDR was the kind of harmless ideological relic that one found in the constitution of many left-of-centre parties elsewhere. In that sense, the ANC would be no different from Britain’s New Labour, whose old-fashioned socialist rhetoric was made redundant by the realities of global capitalism and the collapse of communism.

Kane-Berman dismisses this as dangerous naiveté. Earlier this year he laid the fault for a lack of public discourse over these diabolical designs of the ANC, at the door of the media. The press was foolishly paying “little attention” to the NDR, “whether through ignorance or political correctness”.

The response from the ANC to Kane-Berman has been predictably dismissive. ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe this week accused him of relying on outdated Cold War perceptions of the ANC as a Soviet surrogate. Moreover, the SAIRR itself had historically always been “opposed to the forces of change”.

Aside from his dishonest portrayal of the SAIRR, which can point to a proud history of exposing with academic precision the flaws and horrors of apartheid, Mantashe may have a point. The NDR is not imminent.

While there undoubtedly are staunchly socialist ideologues within the tripartite alliance, they are far from united on goals and strategy. There are also influential countervailing voices within the alliance, like the late Kader Asmal, who challenge the NDR as outdated and advocate jettisoning it.

That the suggestion can even be made indicates a gradually waning influence of ideology. That is, admittedly, in President Jacob Zuma’s ANC; not in Julius Malema’s corner of the party.

And while the critical components of democracy, the media and the judiciary, are indeed taking political strain, they have withstood these pressures very well. An example is the stalling of the proposed media legislation in response to civil society concerns and disagreements within the ANC.

Most crucially, as the habits of democracy have become stronger, the ANC and its alliance have become politically less able to exercise unchallenged power. With every year that has passed since 1994, it has become less likely, not more likely, that hardliners could achieve in SA the authoritarian exercise of power that a NDR would demand.

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