Friday, May 16, 2008

The National Question in a Democratic South Africa

The National Question in a democratic South Africa

Writing in this 1997 discussion document, Z Pallo Jordan argues that if the racialisation of South African politics was rooted in specific historical and material conditions, there is no reason why radical transformation of those conditions cannot result in an end to racism and provide a solution to the national question.

This paper proceeds from the premise that the ANC had to make a number of concessions to the old order in order to secure the beach-head of majority rule in 1994. They were made with the implicit understanding that the main thrust of movement policy would be to consolidate that beach-head and employ it to lay the foundations of a truly democratic society.

It is our further contention that the economic unification of the country spawned a number of centripetal forces which have conspired to create a common South African society. However, the productive relations structured and determined by Colonialism of a Special Type (CST) reproduced a racial hierarchy which was institutionalised and has engendered equally centrifugal forces reinforced by the racial and ethnic divisions sponsored by the apartheid state.

Our third premise is that the ANC has been the most consistent advocate of an inclusive South African nationhood rooted in the universalist, liberatory outlook of modernity and the realities and imperatives of South Africans of all races sharing a common territory. I would therefore contend that issues of democracy, non-racialism and national liberation, on the one hand, and those of racial oppression and ethnicity, on the other hand, come together in acute fashion, and that the attitude one adopts to these two sets of issues defines distinct commitments.

Virtually all the liberation movements that attained victory after 1947, including our own, have been forced to make compromises at the point of victory. National liberation has rarely come in the form that the movement sought.

Consequently, the terrain on which successful movements have to manoeuvre after victory is not necessarily all of their choosing or making.

Our own national democratic revolution is no different. April 27 1994 -when the people finally assumed power - will remain a very significant day in South African history. But in reality it merely marks a high point in a continuing process.

In that ongoing process there will be moments of rapid advance, but there will also be the need, sometimes, to retreat. Retreat does not mean conceding defeat; it is most often a tactical option chosen to put off till a more opportune time, action one would have preferred to take in the present.

What I am suggesting therefore is that national liberation movements have, in many cases, been compelled to postpone aspects of their programme in the light of an intractable tactical conjuncture. The retreat, in other words, is undertaken to prepare for a more coherent and better planned advance.

It is important that we boldly acknowledge and accept that the movement has had to seek compromises and make concessions to the old order so that we could attain the important beach-head of majority rule in 1994. A victory that was further consolidated with the signing into law of the constitution in December 1996.


The ANC never regarded apartheid as mere racial discrimination, though of course racial discrimination was central to its practice. Apartheid was a multi-faceted and comprehensive system of institutionalised racial oppression with the following characteristics:

white minority rule in which the black majority - African, Coloured, Indian - were statutorily excluded from the political process;

the conquest and dispossession of the indigenous people of their land and its wealth, institutionalised in formal legislation, the 1913 Natives Land Act being seminal;

an undisguised white minority monopoly over economic power - the land, mines, industry and commerce - as a result of which the propertied classes were virtually exclusively white, while blacks, on the whole, owned little or no property;

a system of labour coercion which employed a host of extra-economic devices to compel the indigenous people to make themselves readily available as a source of cheap labour power;

a system that required a highly repressive state machinery directed against the conquered people whom the apartheid rulers regarded as a rightless mass to be held down by force of arms.

At the core of the system was the conquest and domination of the African majority, who were the most exploited and oppressed.

National oppression thus found expression in the palpable form of a number of economic, social and developmental indicators - such as poverty and underdevelopment, the low levels of literacy and numeracy among the oppressed communities, their low access to clean water, the non-availability of electricity, their low food consumption, their invariably low incomes, the poor state of their health, the low levels of skills, the generally unsafe environment in which these communities lived, etc.

To uproot oppression required, among other things, the correction of precisely these conditions. In the view of our movement the content of freedom and democracy would be the radical transformation of South African society so as to create an expanding floor of economic and social rights for the oppressed majority. The changes that would bring about this transformation were set out in the Freedom Charter. Though it is not a programme for socialism, the Freedom Charter envisaged the seizure of economic assets in the land, the mines and monopoly industries.

Political democracy placed the levers of power which could be used to address the most immediate and pressing social and economic needs of the oppressed communities in the hands of the ANC. The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) was an attempt to reconcile our vision of transformation with what was immediately attainable in practice. The RDP has been further refined as the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy, aimed at operationalising the RDP in the context of the global environment within which South Africa exists. Parliamentary democracy requires the ANC to package our policies in a platform that can muster the votes needed to win at the polls.


As conventionally understood in South Africa, as elsewhere, the National Question concerns the oppression of one or a number of other people/s by a dominant colonial power. Consequently, the right to self-determination or to national freedom/independence does not apply to the dominant group, but is applied exclusively to the oppressed or dominated group. International law, as it evolved since 1945, including a number UN General Assembly resolutions on South Africa, further underwrote this interpretation of the right to self-determination. Neither international law nor established tradition recognises any right to self-determination by an oppressor group or nation. This is a right that can be claimed exclusively by the oppressed.

In South Africa conquest, accompanied by the development of agrarian capitalism and later mining, set in train a number of socio-economic processes that continue to unfold. Large numbers of Africans, formerly outside the modern economy, were drawn into it first on the mines, then in the developing urban areas. Throughout this period the colonial, and later white authorities, regarded all Africans as a conquered and subject people.

More importantly, conquest drew African, coloured, white and the most recent immigrant population, the Indians, into a common society dominated by the Randlords of British extraction. The Africans' shared status as colonised people conspired with the economic evolution of the country to create the material conditions for the birth to a national consciousness.

This emergent national consciousness was articulated first by the African intelligentsia - clergymen, professionals - during the first decade of this century.

Urbanisation had a homogenising effect on the whole society and expanded the area of shared values among Africans, coloureds, Indians and whites.

The black leadership that grew within these circumstances accepted the modern world because they recognised its liberatory potential for opening up new vistas for themselves and their people. They were modernists.

Thus by the time the Act of Union was passed in 1909, Africans drawn from varying ethnic stocks belonged to the same church, worked at the same jobs, played the same games, read the same newspapers, belonged to the same sports clubs and shared the same political ideals. Thus a person of Zulu birth, could be a member of the Congregational Church, work as a clerk on the mines, be a star soccer player, a reader of The Star, and a member of the Native Voters Association, like a neighbour who was born Venda, Xhosa, Tswana, Sotho, etc. Such urban Africans shared many of these affiliations with whites, coloureds and Indians.

The modernist African intelligentsia consequently evolved an inclusive vision of South Africa, embodied in Rev ZR Mahabane's invocation of: "The common fatherhood of God, and the brotherhood of man." From its inception African nationalism in South Africa eschewed ethnicity, racism and tribal particularism in favour of a non-racial national agenda expressed in the preamble of the Freedom Charter as "South Africa belongs to all who live in it...".

The first whites to embrace the concept of a common society were the left-wing of the then pre-dominantly white labour movement, the South African Communist Party, in 1924. A handful of white liberals within the dominant capitalist classes began to see it as the inevitable result of the changes wrought by World War II. White liberalism made its last ambivalent attempt to force this recognition on the rest of white South Africa through the Commission on Native Laws of 1946 (Fagan Commission).

Otherwise the majority of white South Africans rejected the notion of a single society, and insisted on excluding blacks from common citizenship.

By the cunning of reason CST carried within it two contradictory tendencies - the one, segregationist; the other, its countervailing trend, an integrating impulse.

Racial domination - in its various guises of "white supremacy with justice" a la Smuts' United Party, or the "apartheid" of the National Party - was also the means of domination employed in the pursuance of particular class interests. By legislative fiat and administrative measures, the white autocracy steadily destroyed the property-owning classes among blacks. Beginning with the Natives Land Act of 1913, these measures were followed up by the Natives Land and Trust Act of 1935, the Asiatic Land Tenure Act of 1946, the Group Areas Act of 1951, the Bantu Authorities Act of the same year and a host of others that bankrupted the black property-owning classes by restricting their rights to own property and engage in commerce. Policies such as the white labour policy instituted by the Nat-Labour Pact government after 1924, then further elaborated in the Job Reservation Act of 1954, also made certain forms of skilled work the exclusive preserve of whites. State policy thus created a racial hierarchy graded by skin colour, with whites at the top and Africans at the bottom.

An intricate dialectic of race and class was thus devised, resulting in a class stratification coinciding in large measure with a racial hierarchy, so that in general terms the overwhelming majority of blacks were propertyless working people, while the propertied classes were virtually lily white. The ANC's policy thrust of tilting in favour of the working class and its mass organisations is grounded in this reality. Historical experience is also the basis of the alliance with the Communist Party and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

The revival of African ethnicity was a deliberate act of state policy to fragment the potential opposition to white domination. Beginning with the 1927 Natives Administration Act up to and including the "independence" of Venda, its purpose was to divert African aspirations into harmless ethnic channels. It should not be associated with nostalgia for past greatness on the part of the Africans. Ethnicity, specifically that associated with the "homelands" and "bantustan" politics, quite clearly has nothing to do with "blood", "the ancestors", "the soil" and other attributes which ethnicists invariably invoke. Nor is it the articulation of a "psychological urge" (as the theorists of ethnicity claim) to cohere as members of a unique ethnic community.

The question arises: Is there a national question in post-apartheid South Africa? The easy answer is not in the form in which it is conventionally understood. Racism is no longer institutionalised; all South Africans now have the franchise; racial restrictions on property rights and on access to the professions, trades, and forms of work have been abolished; the instruments of labour coercion have been done away with; and a democratic constitution has put an end to legal repression.

Yet no one can pretend that South Africans share a common patriotism let alone a common vision of the future. Ours is still a highly racialised society and, since the 1970s, racism has been amplified with a sharpening of ethnic attitudes.

Both racism - attitudinal as well as institutional - and ethnicity are functions of the development of South African capitalism in a colonial milieu. Ethnicity, we have argued, was artificially fostered by the Afrikaner nationalist intellectuals and the white minority state, in the one instance as an instrument of ideological domination over the Afrikaner working people; and in the other, to create an opposing centre of authority to the political leadership coming from the modernist black intelligentsia and the labour movement.

Though rooted in these material realities, both forms of ethnicity have produced resonances within the society.

More elusive and erratic is the ethnic consciousness presently found among sections of the coloured and Indian communities. As black national minorities both these communities suffered under the apartheid regime, though the extent was marginally better than that endured by Africans.

What is peculiar about what is referred to as ethnicity among both is that neither is an assertive identity of "selfhood". Where it exists it appears to assume the form of a dependent identification with their former white masters who are now regarded, at best, as "the devil we know", and at worst, as a bulwark against a perceived "black peril" - the African majority - which supposedly will take away their jobs, housing and welfare opportunities.

The driving force behind this 'ethnic' consciousness is competition with fellow blacks over scarce resources. The perception of Africans as a clear and present threat is reinforced by a powerful mood of contingency - a fear of change - which would much prefer the known world to remain as it is, rather than risk the uncertainties of change. To the sections of these communities who embraced this outlook, the National Party represented the continuity they craved. The electoral behaviour of coloured and Indian working people is unlikely to change until visible delivery on the part of the democratic government demonstrates that there could be sufficient resources for all the disadvantaged.


The ANC has always held that democracy, national liberation and non-racialism are inseparable. But, we have equally forcefully said that for democracy to advance national liberation it must entail the empowerment of the oppressed and most exploited - the Africans, coloureds and Indians. The Freedom Charter remains the seminal statement of our movement's vision and it envisages the radical restructuring of key aspects of the economy as the means to destroy the material basis of the white racist power structure.

No serious person, even from among our opponents, could pretend that South Africa today is not a country of far greater opportunity than it was 15 years ago. The opening up of new opportunities for many who never had a chance to pursue their own ambitions, aims and individual aspirations before has created an environment conducive to the emergence of a class of black capitalists, a stratum of very senior black managers and business executives, a stratum of senior black civil servants and bureaucrats, a stratum of black professionals, as well as a black lower middle class.

The struggle for democracy was also a struggle to create opportunities for men and women of colour to rise in accordance with their talents.

Obviously, the ANC cannot bar blacks from becoming and being capitalists, any more than it could debar them from becoming lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers, skilled workers, etc. The high visibility of these strata should not deceive us. In absolute terms they number far, far fewer than their equivalents among whites.

The vast majority of blacks, however, remain workers and other working people.

The movement adopted the conscious and deliberate de-racialisation of South Africa by undertaking a host of measures, among which are affirmative action, to ensure that the results of decades of systematic discrimination and denial of job opportunities are reversed. In other words, as policy the purpose of affirmative action is to create circumstances in which affirmative action will no longer be necessary.

The practical implementation of these policies, outside the public sector, has however been problematic. In both the Western Cape and KwaZulu Natal, the impression has quite deliberately been fostered that affirmative action entails the laying off of coloured and Indian workers or denying opportunity to coloured and Indian workers to create opportunities for Africans. The mischievous intent of these practices is obvious and it produced handsome returns for the then NP in both constituencies.

Racial and ethnic flashpoints over what are seen as diminishing job opportunities are thus being created to compound the existing tensions encouraged by the racial hierarchy in jobs and skills of the past.

The questions we have to pose are, do we see it as one of our tasks, among others, to legislate and lay down strict guidelines for the implementation of this aspect of policy? Should such guidelines apply to all categories of jobs or only to certain ones? Would the most effective means of implementation require the setting of targets by government and the private sector? To what extent should government hold the public sector corporations to account for their implementation of affirmative action?

Beyond the sphere of employment, systematic exclusion from opportunity and property rights has also left a legacy of unrepresentivity in every sector of the economy. Captains of industry in South Africa are invariably white males. The same category of persons dominate the boardrooms of every major corporation in mining, industry, banking and commerce. Commercial farming is virtually by definition the preserve of whites.

In the de-racialisation of society, is the fostering and encouragement of these emergent black middle classes one of the ANC's tasks?

The ANC itself is a multi-class movement, yet historically our movement has received far more support from certain classes than from others. Since the 1940s it is specifically the African working class of town and country who have been the movement's main base of support. Historically the movement has employed the classic weapon of working class struggle - the general strike - as its principal method of peaceful struggle. Because of the relative weight of the working class and other working people among the oppressed the ANC has also tilted unambiguously in favour of their cause and aspirations.

I would suggest that this implies that the ANC's engagement with the emergent black bourgeoisie should involve the elaboration of certain standards of conduct and a business ethic that will speed the realisation of the 'postponed goals' of the national liberation movement. In the immediate timeframe this must include job creation, the fostering of skills development, the empowerment of women, the strengthening of the popular organs of civil society, and active involvement in the fight to end poverty.

The ANC should also encourage this black bourgeoisie to cultivate within their own enterprises and in those where they hold executive positions, the creative management of the conflict potential of industrial relations. In other words, the ANC must influence the black bourgeoisie to assume certain RDP-related responsibilities and to give the lead to the business community with respect to responsible corporate behaviour.


The movement's own non-racialism and non-ethnic ethos is not merely a matter of high moral principle. The endurance and sustenance of these norms, which many today take for granted, has not been unproblematic. The racism pervasive in South African society and the ethnic and tribal segmentation encouraged by the white minority state were powerful currents against which our movement has had to contend.

Consequently the movement itself has been the site of intense politico-ideological struggles around the issues of ethnicity, race, class and gender. During the 1930s, for example, conservatives among the ANC's founding fathers led a campaign to expel communists from the movement. At around the same time Dr John L Dube led the bulk of the ANC branches in Natal out of the mother body to set up his own regional organisation in opposition to the ANC. At the height of the struggles of the 1950s a group of dissidents, led by Potlako Leballo, tried to manipulate the justifiable anger of Africans against their oppressors on an "Africanist" platform, a large component of which was also opposition to communism.

The majority of ANC members resisted these siren songs despite the evident emotional appeal of the "Africanist" slogans. The dissidents walked out of the ANC to constitute themselves as the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1959.

There have been repeated attempts through the years by others to whip up residual ethnic loyalties and sectional inclinations as a means of mobilising support around platforms of dubious credibility. To the credit of the ANC's membership, none of these attempts has been successful.

Which raises the question: Is the ANC leaving those of our people who identify ethnically to the political wolves of ethnic entrepreneurship by continuing to discourage ethnicity and favouring an inclusive nationalism?

Perhaps that question is best answered by posing others. What honour would accrue to the ANC if it were to compete with the PAC on the issue of "Africanism"? Or better yet, can the ANC ever hope to outdo the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in the promotion of a Zulu ethnicity and chauvinism?

And, if it did try to compete on such terrain, what price would the movement have to pay to do so? And, what price will it have to pay for having done so? A third question: Would the ANC profit by trying to pander to the baser instincts of the coloured and Indian working people?


The ANC's vision of empowerment of the mass of our people requires a highly critical attitude towards ethnicity and sectional claims. This does not imply insensitivity to the sense of grievance felt by many African communities and language groups about the relegation and corruption of their languages and cultural practices. I would however argue that the redress of these does not require recognition of special ethnic claims or the politicisation of the issue of language. More specifically, with regard to the claims of the pro-apartheid Afrikaners and Afrikaans speakers, the democratic traditions offering constitutional and other special protection to ethnic and linguistic minorities were designed to secure the rights of oppressed groups whose rights would otherwise be threatened by dominant oppressor groups. Latter-day attempts to appeal to the authority of that tradition as a means of sheltering the privileges of racist and oppressive minorities do violence to that tradition and are patently fraudulent.

It's proper that we remind ourselves of our strategic goal - creating a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist society. The radical transformation of the quality of life of the black majority is central to these objectives.

Putting an end to poverty, hunger, insecurity, and economic exploitation should therefore be at the top of the ANC's agenda.

As in all instances, the national question in South Africa is undergirded by the material realities the development of capitalism in a colonial setting and the institutions created to sustain those productive relations. The democratic breakthrough of 1994 created conditions which enable the ANC and its allies to steadily eradicate the material base of racism in our society. If we accept that the racialisation of South African politics was rooted in specific historical and material conditions, there is no reason why radical transformation of those conditions cannot result in an end to racism and provide a solution to the national question.

We cannot hope to address these problems by uncritically embracing some of the temporary expedients the movement had to adopt in the context of a negotiated settlement.

This will probably require the ANC to pursue de-racialisation with the same determination and tenacity as the racists pursued racism and division. This must be done as a matter of conscious policy by giving no quarter to any form of racial discrimination in schooling, employment, housing and recreation; and we must positively reinforce all efforts at de-racialisation.

This will not prevent a person who places some value in being identified as Venda/Sotho/Tswana/Zulu/ Xhosa/Coloured/Indian, etc from doing so, but it will not require another, who sets no store by that, being compelled to do so. It does however require us to reject the insistence of ethnicists and racists that ethnic origin or race defines an individual's identity or should take precedence over everything else in defining it.

Acknowledging the un-finished character of our national democratic revolution is not to detract from the significance of the gains our movement has made. It should rather spur us to press even harder for the commencement of the next phase of an unfolding democratic revolution. Now more than ever the slogan of the day should be "A luta Continua" - the struggle continues!

Z PALLO JORDAN is a member of the ANC National Executive Committee. This is an abridged version of a discussion paper in preparation for the ANC 50th National Conference in 1997.

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