Could Mandela have used his moral authority to usher a socialist revolution in South Africa?, as some on the left appear to believe. I will come back to this later. It is a much bigger question than say “Could he have negotiated a better deal at independence?” The answer to the latter question I believe is, yes, he could have. On reflection, I am convinced that Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) need not have settled for so little after 100 years of a titanic, heroic struggle of the people since 1912, the year the ANC was born. To be honest, the 1994 deal produced a little mouse out of a mountain of a struggle! And it is this little neo-colonial mouse that is roaring today while the mountain is levelled down. The people were depoliticized immediately following the 1994 agreement, a process I witnessed firsthand.
I’ve been engaged in the debate with many a South African comrade (including several leaders in the ANC, the South African Communist Party – SACP, Congress of South African Trade Unions – COSATU, the Pan-African Congress – PAC and the Black Consciousness Movement – BCM) during my years at the University of Dar es Salaam (1973-79) and later in Zimbabwe (1982 to 2005). This was at the height of the South African armed struggle.
For a short spell, Ruth First was a tutor in a course I taught at Dar. Joe Slovo (her husband) was leading the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC and was soon to become the General Secretary of the SACP. We had discussions and differences over a number of issues – including, the nature and character of corporate capital in South Africa (see further below) , and the role of the armed struggle. During the 1990-94 independence negotiations Slovo broke a stalemate in talks with his idea of the “sunset clause” and for a coalition government for five years following a democratic election. I was in Zimbabwe by that time, and I visited South Africa frequently. I had taken the view that the “sunset clause” was a mistake, a view I still hold. The ANC could have negotiated a better deal. The balance of forces had shifted significantly in favour of the freedom fighters, especially after the decisive defeat of apartheid South African forces at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 at the hands of Cuban and Angolan forces. The ANC, in my view, missed an historic opportunity during the 1990-94 negotiations.
This point is a moot point now. Nonetheless, it is a significant point and historians will come back to it again and again. The issue is not going to go away.
Coming now to the bigger question: “Could Mandela have used his moral authority to usher a socialist revolution in South Africa?” Here I believe that whilst he could not have ushered a socialist revolution, the ANC could have achieved much more for the people than what they have in the last 18 years.
I draw partially from my experience in Uganda. I was member of a movement in the struggle first against the brutal regime of Idi Amin (1972-79) and subsequently the regimes of Obote and Museveni (since 1980). Our movement – the Uganda National Liberation Front – formed the post-Amin government for the period May 1979 to April 1980. A conscious political decision by some of the leading forces of our movement was that time was not ripe to embark on a “socialist road”; for us it was necessary, first, to secure national independence from the dictatorship of global capital. Applying our experience to South Africa, I would say that even today (let alone when South Africa had its first democratic election in April 1994) the struggle is for national independence from the domination of global capital. This is precisely one of the issues on which we had differences with our comrades in the ANC and the SACP in the 1970s and 80s. They argued that South Africa already had “national” capital; and which we said was an illusion. It is still the case that there is very little capital in South Africa that is truly “national”.
The strategic and policy implications of the above point are enormous. Instead of consolidating national independence to build national capital, the post-apartheid government opened the doors to global capital. Where the apartheid regime was seriously trying to develop “Boer national capital”, the post-apartheid government opened up the gates to free flow of global capital into and out of South Africa.
There is no space to elaborate on this point, but a few illustrative examples might help. One, the government deregulated the capital account resulting in massive capital exit. Two, it allowed, for example, Old Mutual (a dominant life insurance firm) to demutualise, and de facto converted over 100 years of workers’ savings into share capital, and open to purchase in global capital markets. Three: it entered into a partial Free Trade Agreement with the European Union which opened South Africa (and almost by default, the Southern African Customs Union (SACU)) to European imports without very limited corresponding benefits, a situation that bedevils South Africa’s relations with its neighbours to this day. Four: it committed itself to repaying the pre-1995 apartheid debt under the illusion that this would build confidence with the international financial institutions (the IMF and the World Bank) and the global market to attract foreign direct investment. It is my strong contention that South Africa ought to have unilaterally repudiated all apartheid-incurred illicit debts. I find it incomprehensible that independent South Africa should pay for debts incurred as a result of crimes against humanity. Five: the negotiations on the Bilateral Investment Treaty with the United Kingdom that preceded democratic elections. Finally: the 1996 GEAR– the Growth, Employment, and Redistribution – strategy. It set the country, I believe, into a reverse gear: many of the gains of the struggle for independence were lost in the process. Evidence of this is visible all over South Africa today.
The views above are not the wisdom brought by hindsight. Indeed, many in South Africa had addressed these concerns at the time. But the ANC and the SACP were basking under the sunshine of the “rainbow nation”, and a few hard facts of life escaped their scrutiny. Actually, looking back I would go further to say that it would have been better for the independent government of South Africa to have made an alliance with Boer capital (for example, in the banking sector) than with global capital (represented by the likes of the Anglo-American and the Old Mutual).
Let me return, briefly, to what Mandela might have done with his huge moral capital. In 1898, the Russian revolutionary, Georgi Plekhanov, wrote a famous book called The Role of the Individual in History. In it he subscribed to the “great men” theory of history with a very important caveat. For them to change the course of history they must understand the underlying social and economic forces that define that course. Plekhanov argued that Marxism provided a good basis for understanding the movement of the forces of capitalism which is the dominant mode of production of the times. To this, I would add a caveat of my own. Marxism is not a simple science. There are no ready-made answers to existential challenges. Leaders like Lenin, Mao and Fidel Castro have made errors, for sure, but they learnt from practice as they went along, and changed the course of history for their nations, and for the world.
Mandela was a great man, a great humanist, may be even a “saint”. But he saw his role as uniting his people across race and tribe, and left the nitty-gritty of state affairs to the ANC and the SACP. These, not Mandela, might be judged by history to have taken the nation to the depressing situation in which the bulk of the poor and the workers find themselves today.