South African’s National Liberation Movement

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National Conference​

Discussion Documents

The National Question in South Africa

1 July 1997


The national question has been an area of intense debate within the ranks of the ANC. This arises from the character of the freedom struggle for national emancipation – to sharpen our understanding of the tasks that the National Democratic Revolution is meant to accomplish.

In the current phase of transition and transformation, it is critical that we revisit this discussion, to ensure that we share a common understanding of this complex question. This applies both to our challenge of transforming South African society, as well as the challenge of how we order the internal life of our organisation.


Colonial conquest in South Africa had two contradictory consequences. On the one hand, it brought together various different communities into one nation-state. On the other hand, this very conquest was used by the colonisers to try and prevent the unity of these communities into one nation.

The discovery of diamonds and gold in the late 19th Century (1800’s) signified the beginning of capitalism and, at the same time, a new era in the history of the country. Thousands of people who were previously separated in self-subsistence economies, were either forced or attracted to the emerging industries to provide labour.

Transport networks were laid to connect the industrial hubs with the harbours. New towns emerged, further bringing together, into a single economy, communities which were previously separated. Peasant Afrikaner farmers began producing for the broader market, while Africans – dispossessed of their land – did not only become providers of labour, but also consumers of commercial products.

One natural result of this was the emergence of the colonisers’ language(s) as a medium of communication through which economic activity was conducted. In the process, aspects of the colonisers’ culture – material and otherwise – gained currency among all communities.

The importation of slaves and indentured labour by the Dutch East India Company from Indonesia, Malaysia and India also helped to shape the make-up of South Africa’s population. These people had been oppressed in the countries they originate from, and were subjected to the same colonial treatment in South Africa. Along with this, was the emergence of the indigenous “Coloured” community.

It is the irony of our history, that this whole process, which crowned South Africa’s revolution into one nation-state, was also the seed of later decades of struggles and bloody conflict. This arose because the state was colonial in character, whether it was in the form of the Union in 1910, or the Republic in 1960. Power was handed over by the British conquerors to the settler colonial community to continue the exploitation of indigenous Africans, in particular, and the black majority in general.

The Essence of the National Question

The national question plays itself out in different ways which are specific to the concrete conditions in various parts of the world. Nevertheless, it is fundamentally a continuous search for equality by various communities which have historically merged into a single nation-state, or the struggle for self-determination and even secession by communities within such states.

In the global context, the national question is fundamentally a an on going search for national sovereignty or self-rule.

A number of basic principles should be taken into account in addressing the national question in our country. These are summarised below in the form of ten theses:

Thesis 1

The liberation movement in South Africa characterised our society as Colonialism of a Special Type to describe the unique situation where both the colonisers and the colonised shared one country.

The basic conclusion arising from this, is that the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) is an act of addressing the national question: to create a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society. The “national character” of the NDR is therefore the resolution of the antagonistic contradictions between the oppressed majority and their oppressors; as well as the resolution of the national grievance arising from the colonial relations.

Thesis 2

National oppression and its legacy are linked closely to class exploitation. Part of the debates on the characterisation of South Africa under apartheid was the question of whether national oppression was a necessary condition for South African capitalism, or whether, in fact, South African capitalism was a necessary condition for national oppression.

What this debate highlights is that national oppression can only be successfully addressed in the context of socio-economic transformation.

This entails much more than competition among the “multi-racial” middle strata and classes for material benefits that can be gained out of the achievement of democracy, a phenomenon to which concepts like “black empowerment” popularly tend to be reduced. Rather, it means improving the quality of life of the poor, the overwhelming majority of whom are defined by South African capitalism as blacks in general, and Africans in particular. In other words, the implementation of the RDP is an essential part of addressing the national question.

Thesis 3

A nation is not equivalent to a classless society. This would be a contradiction in terms, because the concept of class is by definition an international phenomenon, requiring the “withering away” of nations as such.

A nation is a multi-class entity. Under a system of capitalism, it will have its bourgeoisie, middle strata, rural communities – rich and poor. The objective of the NDR is not the creation of a socialist or communist society, though its progression, for those who adhere to these aims, does not exclude these long-term consequences.

Among the central tasks of the NDR is the improvement of the quality of life of especially the poor, and also to ensure that in the medium-to long-term, the place that individuals occupy in society is not defined by race. The opposite is the case in present day South Africa, where the poor are by definition mostly black, whilst the majority of the rich are by definition white.

An important part of this is that the NDR also entails the building of a black bourgeoisie. The tendering conditions that government has introduced, and its encouragement of the private sector to promote all kinds of “empowerment”, aptly illustrate this. The reality is that the bigger and more successful this black bourgeoisie becomes, the more diminished its race consciousness will become, for example in its attitude to workers, and dealing with unions.

At the same time, the unfolding NDR has also meant the fast growth of a black middle strata. This process will speed up even more as opportunities open up in various areas of life.

The democratic movement must seek to influence these classes and strata – both black and white – to take an active part in the realisation of the Reconstruction and Development Programme. This would then enable them to act/ behave in a way that promotes South Africa’s true interests.


Apartheid was successful in crippling working class unity, and that legacy is still felt today.

The ANC enjoys the support of the majority of the Coloured and Indian middle strata. What we usually refer to as the Coloured and Indian question has to do with the expression of fears of the working class (including the unemployed) among these communities. These fears relate to the perception that the rise of the African worker and the African poor, directly impacts on the comparative privilege that apartheid gave them in relation to African people. Similarly, this applies to white workers, which is partly why many of them became the mass base of the ultra-right. There are, of course, other important elements that come into play such as language, religion, racism and the geographic separation of communities.

This unique situation underlines the centrality of building working class unity as key to creating the South African nation.

Thesis 5

It is important to realise that the national question is also a superstructural phenomenon at the level of consciousness, “feelings” and perceptions. Thus, it has an important and dynamic momentum of its own, underpinned by factors such as language, culture and religion. The social psychological element of the national question can therefore be used effectively to promote the process of forming a nation, or indeed, to undermine it.

One of our greatest successes in the transition has been to promote the “feeling” of pride in being South African, including through activities like sport, which may seem trivial. Capturing the national imagination through the campaign for a “New Patriotism” is critical to nation-building.

However, the social psychological phenomenon on its own is not sustainable without socio-economic transformation. Neither can it be accepted as universally credible in a situation in which the beneficiaries of apartheid do not accept that they have to forego some of these privileges. The rumblings on issues such as education, welfare grants, labour matters, and so on, are a reflection of this problem.

Thesis 6

Individuals are social beings with different social experiences, class backgrounds, political histories, religious affiliations as well as sport and music preferences. With regard to the national question; race, ethnic origins, language and sometimes even religion, have an important role to play in defining a person’s identity. Above all, the fact of belonging to this country and this state, is itself an important definer of identity.

Therefore, individuals will have multiple identities: for instance being a South African with a specific mother tongue, class position, political and religious affiliation and so on. These identities do not necessarily disappear in the melting pot of broad South Africanism. Rather, they can all co-exist in healthy combination. The fundamental question that has to be asked is which identity assumes prominence, and under what conditions.

To deny the reality of these identities by the democratic movement is to create a vacuum which can easily be exploited by counter-revolution.

However, the main thrust of the NDR is not to promote fractured identities, but to encourage the emergence of a common South African identity. At the same time, it should be noted that some of the identities associated with “culture” or “ethnicity” or “religion” can in fact be contradictory to the building of a new nation that is based on principles of equity. For example, these attributes are used as an excuse to perpetuate gender oppression, or to campaign for racial or ethnic divisions among citizens.

Thesis 7

From its characterisation of apartheid colonialism, the ANC was correct in asserting, in the documents on Strategy and Tactics from the Morogoro and Kabwe Consultative Conferences, that the main content of the NDR is the liberation of Black people in general, and Africans in particular. They are in the majority, and they constitute even an overwhelmingly larger majority of the poor.

Related to this is the identity of the South African nation in the making: whether it should truly be an African nation on the African continent, or a clone, for example, of the US and UK in outlook; in the style and content of its media, in its cultural expression, in its food, in the language accents of its children, and so forth. Hence, what is required is a continuing battle to assert African hegemony in the context of a multi-cultural and non-racial society.

It is debatable whether the popular imagery of a “rainbow nation” is useful in this respect. There is an important role that it does play as popular imagery. But it used to express the character of South African society as one made up of black Africans who pay allegiance to Africa, whites who pay allegiance to Europe, Indians who pay allegiance to India and Coloureds somewhere in the undefined middle of the rainbow, then it can be problematic. For it would fail to recognise the healthy osmosis among the various cultures and other attributes in the process towards the emergence of a new African nation.

Thesis 8

Futhermore, Morogoro was correct to assert that this main content of the NDR should find expression in the leadership structures of the ANC, and indeed in the country as a whole. This is usually referred to as “African leadership”.

However, this principle does not imply mechanical proportional representation in leadership structures. In other words, that we should do “ethnic, racial, language, gender and class arithmetic” in composing leadership structures.

The principle of African leadership and balanced representation in racial, gender, ethnic and class terms is a broad one, which should find broad expression in actual practice. Yet, attention should always be paid to these broad groupings because a critical mass can be reached where perceptions of dominance can take root.

The principle of African leadership does not mean moving away from merit: One cannot proceed from the premise that it is people, other that African people, who have merit. However, apartheid deliberately denied opportunities to Blacks in general, and Africans in particular. Therefore, it is critical that deliberate steps are taken to empower them to play their role. Affirmative action is meant to address this, and naturally, it is those who have been most disadvantaged who ought to be the foremost beneficiaries of such a programme.

Thesis 9

The national question can never be fully resolved. This is because it is not merely a material question, or one that is it related solely to various forms of power. This derives from the fact that emotional and psychological factors are attached to it. In addition, people will continue to have multiple identities.

Instead, the challenge is to maintain a healthy equilibrium between centrifugal (“disintegrative”) and centripetal (“integrative”) tendencies.

Indeed, as we seek to integrate South African society across racial, language, ethnic and other barriers, we are also engaged in the process of developing those individual elements that distinguish these various communities from one another.

It will not be possible to achieve the kind of balance that will satisfy everyone for all time, even if the broad principle is attained in practice. This is aggravated by the fact that individuals compete for positions in politics, the academic terrain, the economy and elsewhere. The more dishonest and underhanded ones among them might seek to use criteria which exclude those who have historically been disadvantaged, or to use the racial, ethnic and /or language card to advance their personal ambitions.

Even within the ANC, tensions will flare up from time to time, especially in periods such as preparations for National Conference and other allocations of positions of power and influence.

Thesis 10

The process of nation formation depends on objective conditions such as the fact of an integrated national economy, the historical evolution of a nation-state, national identity and so on. This objective environment is itself a product of human activity; in our case represented broadly in the act of colonisation and the struggle against it .

This struggle was itself an important and conscious act of nation-building. To this extent, the ANC (and other political movements), the new government and organs of civil society, have a critical role to play in facilitating the emergence of a new nation: in nation-building.

This includes striving for consistent and thorough-going democracy, effecting socio-economic transformation, and encouraging a New Patriotism. It must also include the elimination of the geographical separation along racial and ethnic lines, in the programmes to provide housing and other services.


These are not necessarily all the critical matters relating to the national question. Within the ANC we should ensure open, rigorous and dignified debate on an issue that will be with us for a long time to come. This is even more critical for an organisation for whom it is historically necessary, to be theoretically and practically, a microcosm of the non-racial society we seek to build.

Arising from such discussion, we also need to determine how, in practical terms, to put in place a programme aimed at speeding up the de-racialisation of South African society in all respects. This could be backed up by concrete targets to measure progress in this regard.