South African’s National Liberation Movement

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National Conference​

Discussion Documents

The National Question in Post 1994 South Africa.

16 December 1997

“The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances,….”

Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1918 about the Bolsheviks. Could that admonition not also be directed at the South African national liberation movement (NLM) and the ANC?

Comrade President Mandela has often remarked that we should not behave as if we are dealing with an enemy whom we defeated on the battle field. Implicit in this warning is that the enemy is still strong and might well have un-exhausted reserves of power and energy that he could marshall against us.

What remains unsaid, but should be read between the lines, is that the elections of April 1994 entailed a degree of compromise, some concessions and postponements, many of which took account of the enemy`s real strength and untapped power. Others were made to draw to our side of the conflict vacillating class elements and strata who might otherwise have reinforced the ranks of an as a yet undefeated enemy. Yet others were made to widen the fissures and cracks within the enemy`s own ranks and to buy time that would enable us to consolidate the gains made. There were also compromises forced upon us because we could ill-afford to jeopardise the larger prize – majority rule – in pursuance of a few uncertainties.

It is in this context that I want to locate the national question in the post April 1994 period, focussing specifically on the issues of uprooting the institutions of Colonialism of a Special Type (CST), Ethnicity and Culture and Affirmative Action.

Some Comparative Comments.

1997 marks the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence, it will also be the 48th Anniversary of China`s Liberation on 1 October. These two anniversaries and the movements associated with them probably were the central influences on the post World War II process of decolonization.

In many respects the two movements are contemporary and their victories are just two years apart. Yet they are referred to very differently by both protagonists and antagonists. We speak of the “Struggle for Indian Independence”, but we speak of the “Chinese Revolution”. Is there any significance in how we refer to the two movements? Does our expression point up a fundamental difference between the two?

The attainment of Indian Independence was of great political, social, psychological and symbolic importance to all the peoples in the colonies. India was the world`s largest colony. It was probably the richest British colony – fondly referred to as the “Jewel in the Crown” in the literature of imperial nostalgia. The independence of India in 1947 was the first decisive triumph of the liberation movements in the colonies and semi-colonies. Independent India was also the very first country to place the issue of racial oppression in South Africa on the agenda of the newly founded United Nations Organisation. As such it had a very direct bearing on the struggle of our own people. For the other colonies it represented the implicit guarantee of colonial freedom. It gave a very positive impetus to the irresistible drive towards colonial freedom that unfolded during the 1950s and 1960s.

Yet, the emancipation of India came in a form that was far less than the movement for independence had fought for. The country was partitioned along religious lines. The creation of Pakistan was a totally arbitrary act of colonial despotism because there was no precedent of such an entity – a Muslim state – in pre-colonial India. That act built into India`s hard won independence a virtually permanent source of tension. A cancer, so to speak.

The liberation of China came about by a very different route. An armed struggle, characterised by two revolutionary Civil Wars, briefly interrupted by a War of Resistance to Japanese imperialism, culminated in the routing of the Goumindang`s armies and the armed seizure of power by the Communist Party at the head of a successful peasant`s revolt.

Yet the “un-finished character” of Indian independence, is echoed also in the liberation of China. With the support and assistance of the US, Taiwan seceded under Guomindang rule; the British were allowed to remain in Hong Kong until July 1997; and the Portuguese are still in Macao .

Despite their un-finished character, both these movements were nonetheless victories. And the significance of their achievements is not diminished by the concessions that had to be accepted or that were foisted upon them.

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 the triumphant movement has to manoeuvre after victory is not necessarily all of its own choosing or making.

Anniversaries are important as marking a climax, the crucial nodal point in time – the people finally assuming power. But, while we might focus on a single day, a single event, or happenings – revolutions are not a moment, they are processes. Processes in which there are nodal moments – like 27 April 1994 – but they are a continuum. Our own national democratic revolution is no different. April 27 1994 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. Retreating does not mean conceding defeat, it is most often a tactical manoeuvre undertaken 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 and policy in the light of an intractable tactical conjuncture. The retreat, in other words, is undertaken in order 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.

How Did We Understand Apartheid?

Since 1969 Morogoro Conference the ANC has held the view that the contradiction between the colonised Black majority (Africans, Coloureds and Indians) and the White oppressor state is the most visible and dominant contradiction within apartheid ruled South Africa.It has further argued that this contradiction could not be solved by the colonial state “reforming itself out of existence”, and consequently, only struggle to overthrow the system of colonial domination would lead to the resolution of this contradiction. Moreover, it was our view that since the colonial state and the colonised people could not be spatially separated, there was no possibility of the two co-existing – as is the case in classic colonialism where the colonial power packs off its staff and goes home, leaving the former colony to fend for itself. In the South African context, this necessarily meant that the struggle would have to result in the destruction of the apartheid state.

The ANC always regarded apartheid as much more than mere racial discrimination, though of course racial discrimination was central to its practice. We regarded apartheid as a multi-faceted and comprehensive system of institutionalised racial oppression with the following characteristics:

    1. It was a system of White minority rule in which the Black majority were staturorily excluded from the political process. Political power, except for some marginal delegated powers, was explicitly the monopoly of the White minority. The indigenous people were ruled as a conquered and colonised people.
    1. It was based on the conquest and dispossession of the indigenous people of their land and its wealth. This dispossession was itself institutionalised in formal legislation. The watershed law was the 1913 Natives Land Act in terms of which 13 per cent of the land area of the country was set aside as “Native Reserves” and Africans were excluded from land ownership, save by special licence, in the remaining 87% of the country. Consequently, access to the decisive sectors of productive land was racially determined to the advantage of the Whites.

The dominant White minority enjoyed an undisguised monopoly over economic power – the land, mines, industry and commerce – which was racially apportioned to its advantage. As a result the propertied classes were virtually exclusively White, while Blacks, on the whole, owned little or no property.


    1. It was a system of labour coercion in which a multiplicity of extra-economic devices had been deployed with the specific purpose of compelling the indigenous people to make themselves readily available as a source of cheap labour power.
  1. In order to function, the system had required a highly repressive state machinery, which was directed against the conquered people whom the apartheid rulers regarded as a rightless mass to be held down by force of arms.

All of this was rationalsed on the basis of the racial superiority of the Whites. Apartheid was however also a racial hierarchy, graded on the basis of skin colour, resulting in a high degree of differentiation among the oppressed in terms of job opportunities, access to certain types of training, the exercise of property rights, etc. At the core of the system of national oppression 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. Thus the uprooting of national oppression required, amongst 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 we felt would bring about this transformation were set out in our Programme, 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 industry as essential to the transformation of South Africa.

How Do We Understand April 1994?

It would not be unreasonable to characterise 27 April 1994 as the commencement of a new phase of South Africa`s national democratic revolution. The democratic elections ushered in political democracy, enabling the people of this country for the first time to put in office a government of their choice. But the political democracy that came into being was one based on a host of preceding institutional arrangements.

Firstly it was parliamentary democracy, on the British model, which prescribes that the executive be constituted by the party that held the majority of seats in parliament. Secondly, there were the terms agreed at Kempton Park, that parties that polled more than five percent of the total poll could enter into a coalition of national unity.

However, political democracy also placed in the hands of the democratic government, led by the ANC, levers of power which could be used to address the most immediate and pressing social and economic needs of the oppressed communities. The RDP was an attempt to reconcile our vision of transformation with what was immediately attainable in practice. The RDP has been further refined through the government`s GEAR strategy, which is aimed at operationalising the RDP in the context of the global environment within which South Africa has to live. But parliamentary democracy means that the ANC has now entered the era of electoral politics.And winning a working majority in the legislative chamber at local, provincial and national levels determines whether or not we will be given the mandate to govern.Electoral politics requires that we package our policies and tasks in a platform that can muster the votes needed to win at the polls.

Without the mandate of the electorate, the movement will not have the authority to put in place the programmes that can bring nearer the attainment of our strategic goals.[i]

Our message of a “Better Life for All” in 1994 , was a bid to encapsulate the long term and immediate objectives of the movement in a catchy and memorable phrase. True to itself and its traditions, the ANC also addressed itself to the entire nation, rather than a section of it. In spite of this the election results demonstrated that we garnered support mainly from the African people, sections of the Coloured and Indian middle classes and a tiny fraction of Whites. In KwaZulu- Natal a sizeable portion of the African rural population supported the IFP, as did sections of the White and Indian professional classes. The overwhelming majority of Coloured and Indian working classes voted for the National Party. Whites went overwhelmingly for the NP; a sizeable fraction of the Afrikaners voted FF, while the remainder, a tiny fraction totalling 2% of the electorate, voted DP.

The policy positions the ANC put forward could not be faulted by any of its opponents. Some even sought to mimic them! But the election results indicated that in many instances it was identification with particular parties and fear of others, rather than political platforms per se that persuaded voters how to cast their votes. Race, ethnicity, gender and class were very evidently salient factors in voter choice.

The National Question in Context.

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. [Thus it would have been absurd for Britain to have characterised the decolonisation of India as an act of British self-determination.] International law, as it evolved after World War II, including a number UN Security Council resolutions on South Africa, further underwrote this interpretation of the right to self-determination. International law, convention and established tradition does not recognise any right to self-determination by an oppressor group or nation. This is a right that can be claimed exclusively by the oppressed!

What then is the relevance of this to South Africa today?

Among the tactical options the ANC was compelled to consider was that of accommodating the demand for a Volks chamber on the part of the White ultra- Right. I submit that it would be utterly wrong to interpret this as some form of recognition of the right to self-determination on the part of the Afrikaners.

Firstly this would violate every precept of international law as it has evolved since 1945, and would also run counter to the ANC`s own conception of self- determination.

How then do we view our acceptance of the Volks chamber?

The example of the Volks chamber serves to highlight a concession that is most glaringly inconsistent with both the democratic foundations of the South African constitution and the tradition to which the ANC has always adhered. There are a number of others, perhaps less jarring, which had to be made at the time as a means of smoothing the transition. It is however of paramount importance that we assess whether these were temporary arrangements which should not be allowed to congeal into a status quo or were regarded as options that could become permanent. I would like to discuss some of these concessions, as well as their tactical significance in relation to how we view ethnicity, the issue of culture, affirmative action and the emergence of a black capitalist class.

It has become impolitic in South Africa to speak of tribalism. Firstly, because this is an expression that has been used by racists and other enemies of the African people as a means of stigmatising Africans as peculiarly prone to “tribalism”. Secondly, many have argued that what are usually referred as “tribes” in the African context, in Europe would be called nations, or at least nationalities. “Tribe” by this account is yet one other example of derogatory language applicable exclusively to Africans as a way of belittling us. Thirdly, the term “tribalism” is itself highly politically charged and consequently adds more heat than light to an argument. We have developed a preference for “ethnicity” as a consequence.

The South Africa that was finally brought under White control and domination at the end of the Anglo-Boer War had formerly been divided amongst at least nine different African political communities. In the south east there had been the kingdoms of the Xhosa, sub-divided into a number of principalities (or paramountcies as the colonialists preferred to call them); in the north east the Zulu Kingdom; the Tsonga kingdom; and the Venda Kingdom. On the highveld were the baPedi kingdom, the Tswana and southern Sotho Kingdoms. In addition to these there were the independent Coloured principalities of the Gri(qua) and Nama(qua), under the leadership of Kapteins (Chiefs) At the Berlin conference of 1884 the colonial powers of Europe had shared Africa out amongst themselves. In many instances the newly established colonial borders divided these kingdoms, as was the case with the Swazi kingdom, whose people lived on either side of the borders, the southern Sotho, the Tsonga and many of the Tswana.

Conquest, accompanied by the growth of agrarian capitalism and later mining, had set in train a number of socio-economic processes that continue to unfold till this very day. The colonial authorities regarded all Africans, irrespective of their affiliation or origin, as a conquered and subject people. A handful could, by the grace of the colonial regime, buy their way out of their helot status by acquiring property of a certain value, or by practising a profession or by engaging in a trade that earned a certain income. These were the “exempted Natives”, who in the Cape and Natal were allowed to vote and were not required to carry passes. Large numbers of Africans, formerly outside the modern economy, were drawn into it first on the mines, then in the developing urban areas.

Most importantly, conquest had drawn African, Coloured, White and the most recent immigrant population, the Indians , into a common society in which the capitalist economy, dominated by the Randlords of British descent was pre-eminent.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 – in the first decade of this century.

Before and immediately after the Anglo-Boer war, the Colonial authorities in London, had mitigated the worst excesses of the settler White minority in South Africa. Indeed Britain had entered the war proclaiming as one of her aims the amelioration of the condition of Africans in the two Boer Republics. Because of this Black intellectuals and political leaders had come to regard the British government, and those South African Whites who identified with the imperial power, as protectors, patrons and allies. Britain promptly betrayed these undertakings once the Boers had been defeated and sought instead an accommodation with her former enemies to “keep the darkies in their place.” The 1905 Native Affairs Commission sealed the British imperial state`s betrayal of the hopes of all Blacks by confirming their colonial status in no uncertain terms. National consciousness emerged as a response to conquest and the shedding of past illusions about the imperial state.

The main agencies for the socialisation of Africans into modern life were the mines and factories, churches, schools, formal and informal orgainsations, and as literacy grew, the press and other media. All of the latter were controlled by the Black intelligentsia. Acculturation thus unfolded largely as a process guided by them and on their terms. This accounts for the extra-ordinary ideological hegemony of this stratum over modern African communities despite its puny numbers. The values and mores of this intelligentsia were quintessentially the product of transition from pre-colonial to colonial society. In the urban areas new opportunities arose for mixing with Africans and other Blacks from diverse social,ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious backgrounds. In the towns education, training, skill, wealth and other achievements were the measure of status rather than lineage and descent. New points of contact based on economic, social and political activity in this new environment assisted in forging new identities. The jettisoning of some inherited values, the retention of others and the embracing of new ones, made for a more variegated cultural surroundings which offered more opportunities for the energetic, the creative and talented.

At the same time the homogenising effect of urbanisation on the whole society expanded the area of shared values among Africans, Coloureds, Indians and Whites as members of a common society. The Black – African, Coloured and Indian – leadership that grew within these circumstances accepted the modern world because they recognised its liberatory potential in opening up new vistas for themselves and their people. They were modernists.[ii] 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 one person could be of Zulu birth, 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 his neighbour who was 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. Z. R 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….”

This process of homogenisation grew apace with time, picking up speed particularly during and after World War II when millions of Africans from the rural areas were called forth to man industry. As the members of this urbanising African community restructured and reconstituted their identities to take account of the new roles that living and working in a modern economy imposes on them, so too have the significance of particular language communities and ethnic backgrounds assumed diminished importance in the manner in which they conduct their lives.

The concept of a common society was also embraced by the left-wing of the then pre-dominantly White labour movement, organised as 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 1946 Fagan Commission on Native Laws. Otherwise the majority of White South Africans rejected the notion of a single society, and insisted on excluding Blacks from common citizenship.

Colonialism of a Special Type (CST) carried within it two contradictory tendencies – the one, segregationist ; the other, its counter-vailing trend, an integrating impulse. Capitalist development in a colonial setting co-opted the numerous existing instruments of coercion, including racism, and created others of its own for purposes of capital accumulation. Victorian racist ideology, merged with that of the ex-Boer Republics, was the chief instrument of the emergent capitalist classes. The empirical facts of institutionalised racial discrimination, arranged in the hierarchical manner already referred to, have acted upon the consciousness of South Africans to the same or a greater degree than the objective socio-economic forces. The society at large, including the economic institutions themselves, have been the objects of forces and political currents generated within the dominant racist order.

The Segregationist Forces.

The principal counter-vailing tendencies to integration were the economic interest of the dominant White capitalist classes – in mining and agriculture – and the sectional interests of the Afrikaner petty bourgeoisie.

Like any other dominant class, the White oligarchy in mining and commercial agriculture sought to limit access to their economic and social status. Law, inherited custom and the mores of British colonialism in Africa were used to deny Africans access to various forms of productive property. This was first applied in the mines, but was incrementally extended to commercial agriculture, then to various trades and professions,then to a number of commercial activities, culminating in “Stallardism”, that excluded Africans from the urban areas except when “ministering to the needs of the Whites”. By the 1920s all Whites, including the recently landed immigrant and even the beggar, were defined as members of an exclusive community, collectively endowed with certain rights and prerogatives solely on account of their race.

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 expreience is also the basis of the alliance with the Communist Party and COSATU.

These racial exclusions were institutionalised in the 1909 Act of Union, then by extension differentially applied to the other Blacks. Indians, as a numerically weak minority of recent immigrants, were the easiest victims. Coloureds, the majority of whom were the descendants of propertyless servants and former bonded persons, were to witness steady encroachments on their rights well into the 1970s.

The second powerful reinforcement of racism came from the sectional interests of the Afrikaner petty bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. British victory in the Anglo- Boer War destroyed Afrikaner independence and threatened to plunge the Afrikaner people into a cosmopolitan, industrialising society dominated by British monopoly capital. The impoverished Afrikaner ex-farmer of the early 1900s, like his African and Coloured counterparts, entered the job market as the least skilled and least acculturated to urban life. All three these groups of former peasants now had to re-invent and restructure their identities as new persons living in a common society. From the perspective of the Afrikaner petty bourgeois intelligentsia – whose domain was the Dutch reformed churches and its educational institutions – this process held out the prospect of the urbanising Afrikaner community drifting away from the church, the “volk” and other institutions dominated by themselves.

Consequently, the bearers of Afrikaner nationalist ideology were the small property owners and related strata amongst the Afrikaners, whose livelihood depended on the preservation and elevation of that community`s distinct language, the preservation of its churches and exclusive schools, as well as other institutions. They manipulated the totems and symbols of the Afrikaner`s recent past – defeat in war, the destruction of their republics, suffering at the hands of the British occupation forces, etc – to cocoon their community against the influences of the cosmopolitan environment. An ethnic nationalism, which alleviated the pain of the Afrikaner working people`s alienation, but could not redress their political and economic subordination was the result. Afrikaner ethnic nationalism defined an ethnic “home” for a people who had been rudely torn from their pre-industrial life by war and bankruptcy and placed them under the ideological domination of the Afrikaner propertied classes who thenceforth employed ethnic mobilisation as the means to carve out a niche for themselves in South Africa`s developing capitalist economy.

The Afrikaner nationalists found ready helpers among the right wing of the White labour movement, led by the South African Labour Party. An electoral pact between the two in 1924, defeated Smuts` South African Party and began an inexorable reinforcement of racism through law. The White labourites hoped to promote the claims of White workers to certain rights by an appeal to their status as Whites in a colonial society. White labourism`s alliance with the racists was sealed at the expense of the Black people in general, but the Black working class in particular.As the majority of White workers embraced racism, so too did they drift away from the Labour Party which virtually disappeared from White South African politics by the outbreak of World War II. This led to the coalescence of a racial bloc – Whites as a dominant racial group – led by the capitalist classes, who projected the particular interests of the White propertied classes as the general interest of all Whites.

The third, but no less important countervailing trend was White racist state policy. Once institutionalised, racial domination and its twin, racism infected every pore of society. The compound labour system, originally designed to give mining employers greater control over their work force, was extended to virtually every section of African workers. After the Report of the Stallard Commission in 1923, Africans were arbitrarily defined as aliens in all the urban areas of the country. They were residentially segregated to improve control over their movements and residential segregation quickly became the norm in urban areas outside a few areas of the Cape, Natal and some freehold locations in Johannesburg.

The Evolution of So-Called African Customary Law.

But the chief institutional plank of segregatory politics came as a response to an emergent, inclusive African nationalism as expressed in the phenomenal growth of the ICU during the 1920s. The formulation of “Native policy” in the Nat-Labour Pact government of 1924 was in the hands of so-called “experts” from Natal, schooled in the Shepstonian policies of divide and rule.

Dismayed at the ability of the urban blacks (mainly African and Coloured) to master the organisational skills appropriate to their environment these experts hit on the notion: “Bantu communalism rather than Bantu Communism” as a riposte. This was translated into the Native Laws Amendment Act of 1927 – the earliest attempt to create a comprehensive legal framework for racial oppression – which statutorily changed all African chiefs into servants of the state and elevated the Governor-General to the status of “Supreme Chief of all Natives” (in much the same fashion as the king of Britain was Emperor of India.) All Africans, irrespective of their preference, would henceforth be assigned to a “tribe” and placed under the authority of chief or headman to whom they would be obliged to pay allegiance. The chiefs and headmen were given extra-ordinary powers of coercion over their “subjects”. They were granted power to administer the distribution of land, “tribal” justice, and the system of labour recruitment and control. Thus a parallel legal and administrative regime, applying exclusively to Africans, was established. Its impact was, and continues to be, particularly severe on African women whose rights are radically curtailed in terms of what purports to be “African customary law”. A key component of the “triple oppression of African women” were the institutions of so-called “customary law”, which reduced them to the status of legal minors, constricting even further the very limited rights African women could claim under apartheid.

These measures were touted as the promotion of “traditional” forms of African government and the recognition of “traditional” African leaders, whom the racist state saw and treated as a counterweight to the modern political leadership offered by the intelligentsia and the urban labour movement.

There was, however, little or nothing that was traditional about these “traditional authorities” created and installed by the White minority government. No nineteenth century African king or prince would have recognised himself in the tinpot autocrats invented by the 1927 Act.

The institutional incorporation of “traditional” leaders was a thorough corruption of pre-colonial legal traditions and merely an extension of racial domination by proxy. As system of indirect rule favoured by colonial powers everywhere. Its purpose was creating a caste of relatively privileged Africans who would thus acquire a direct material interest in the preservation of the institutions of racial domination at the expense of their own people. The fact that some of these cooptees could trace descent from the pre-colonial heads of kingdoms and other notables was purely incidental. The White minority state repeatedly demonstrated its low regard for such niceties by the arbitrary deposition of legitimate chiefs and the elevation of lesser figures in a lineage purely on the basis of their attitude towards the racist state.

Because their livelihoods depended on it, these “traditional” authorities acquired an interest in fostering an ethnic consciousness by wielding the totems, symbols and other paraphernalia of a particular “culture” or practises that differentiated their subjects from those of other chiefs. Language and “customs” proved useful foils in such an exercise. The power of “traditional” authority was augmented with the active connivance of the mining industry who agreed to recognise “tribal” affiliation in the housing of their labourers in the compounds. This device was eagerly seized upon by other employers of migrant workers who readily recognised it as a cheap means of extending further control over their workforce.

Thus was “bantu communalism” harnessed to combat, not only communism, but more importantly, an inclusive, progressive African nationalism. The revival of African ethnicity thus had little to do with nostalgia for past greatness on the part of the Africans. It was even less the articulation of a “psychological urge” (as the theorists of ethnicity claim) to cohere as members of a unique ethnic community. It clearly was a deliberate act of state policy to subvert the struggle for equality and freedom on the part of the African people.

After 1927 the African chiefs and other notables, who had been accorded a special status as an “upper House” in the ANC, with some outstanding exceptions, withdrew from the national liberation movement. By 1936 the House of Chiefs had fallen to disuse. It was finally abolished under A.B. Xuma`s Presidency in 1943.

Verwoerd and the Rise of the Ethnic Entrepreneur.

The NP`s victory at the polls in 1948 marked the political defeat of those amongst the Whites who had accepted a common society. The White electorate effectively turned its back on liberalism in 48 offering it only the extra-parliamentary route to attain its goals. African Nationalists, Communists, liberals and other democrats collectively would thenceforth have to devise new strategies to realize a common society.

Though the White minority regime had assigned “bantu communalism” a distinct role in the strategy of domination, it vacillated in its use of the chiefs as an instrument of power. It was only under the post-1948 NP regime that Verwoerd set out quite deliberately and more consistently to sponsor the “traditional leaders” as the state`s front forces of repression in the rural areas set aside for African occupation and as a rival centre of political authority to the national liberation movement .

Verwoerd`s method differed from that of previous White pro-consuls over the “bantus” in that he invested both money and personnel in raising the stature of the “traditional” authorities to transform them into the central players in a chain of political patronage, presided over by Pretoria. The “traditional authorities” would be the vital transmission point for such patronage. By this device Verwoerd hoped to endow the “traditional leaders” with a greater degree of authority by disbursing tangible material rewards to them, which they in turn could dispense to helpers, supporters and collaborators.

Verwoerd theorised his strategy in terms of apartheid ideology, arguing that South Africa was not a common society. An historical accident had resulted in the artificial forcing together of members of a number of discrete nations. Thirteen of these were the “bantu nations”, the others were the Afrikaners, the Brits, the Coloureds and Namas, and the Asians. By his account, each of these “nations” was striving for independence, which apartheid was designed to facilitate, by creating the space for each to “develop along its own lines.”

The first step the regime took in this direction was the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951, which further inflated the powers of “traditional leaders”, but simultaneously increased the apartheid state`s control over them as well. All through the 1950s into the early 1960s, peasants resistance to the impositions of the racist regime, converged with the resistance of specific chiefs and lineages to the corruption of African tradition as they understood it. The upshot was the peasant uprisings in Witzieshoek (Qwaqwa), Sekhukhune (Lebowa), Rustenburg and Zeerust. The exception to this pattern was the revolt of the Transkei peasants in 1960 to 1961, which was directed against both the newly installed “Bantu authorities” and their paymasters in Pretoria. That revolt was inevitably led by commoners who identified with the modern liberation movement and whose assemblies adopted the Freedom Charter as their programme.

In the wake of African independence and the rural uprisings of the 1950s and early 60s, the apartheid regime took its strategy still further. Still under the guidance of Verwoerd, by then elevated to the post of Prime Minister in recognition of his services, the “Bantu Self-government Act” was passed in 1961, ostensibly as the first step to granting independence to the developing “bantu nations”. The 13 percent of the land area of South Africa set aside as “Native Reserves” in 1913 was now redefined as “Bantu homelands” where, Verwoerd proclaimed, all African political aspirations would have to be realised. By definition all African claims in the rest of the country were thus illegitimate and intrinsically seditious.

The act was however an extremely cynical political sleight of hand designed to delegate further repressive powers of control to the “traditional leaders” and to enmesh them even more thoroughly in the enforcement of apartheid. To make the package more attractive to those who would go along with it, the means of political patronage were greatly augmented as were the arbitrary powers “traditional authorities” were granted over their subjects. Verwoerd`s pro-consuls assiduously revived long forgotten chieftaincies and scoured even urban townships to uncover individuals with some tenuous link to an obscure lineage in order to give substance to this new policy thrust. Once found, such non-entities were encouraged to stake their claims and were duly crowned as”headmen”, “chiefs”, or “paramount chiefs” by the “supreme chief of the Natives”. The “traditional leaders” were encouraged to become ethnic entrepreneurs, who could acquire the status of “royalty” and enrich themselves provided they were prepared to do the bidding of the apartheid regime. To lend some dignity to this deceitful exercise, the regime also assisted its appointees to constitute what were purported to be modern political parties, but were in fact machines for the dispensing of patronage. The Chief of the Buthelezi clan in KwaZulu proved to be the most adept at using the instruments of the “homeland” system in constructing a political machine and an effective system of patronage.

At the same time the draconian powers that the 1927 Act had vested in the “supreme chief of the Natives” were wielded with a new vigour to depose those who proved unwilling to cooperate; to exile and deport those who were defiant; as well as to elevate the most willing collaborators. Thus, for example, Chief Kaiser Matanzima, from a relatively junior lineage among the Tembu, was raised to the same status as his cousin, King Sabata Dalindyebo. And at the other extreme, Chief Moroamocha of the baPedi, who refused till his dying day to cooperate with the apartheid state, was deposed and condemned to internal exile!

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. It does however have everything to do with White racist policies to thwart the aspirations of our people for freedom, democracy and equality.

The National Question in Post Apartheid South Africa.

The sub-heading elicits the question: 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, 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 and a common vision of the future of their society. 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 demonstrated, 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 intelligentsia and the labour movement.

Though rooted in these material realities, both forms of ethnicity have produced resonances within the society, and often for very similar reasons.[iii]

Less stable and consequently more erratic, is the ethnic consciousness presently found among 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 both is that neither is an assertive identity of “selfhood”. In the case of both communities there is 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 NP 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.

Affirmative Action, Corrective Measures and the Freedom Charter.

This paper proceeds from the premise that the ANC had to make a number of distasteful concessions to the old order in order to secure the beach-head of majority rule in 1994. These 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.

We have further argued 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 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 national liberation movement, with the ANC at its head, 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. Arising from these, I would 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.

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 institutional form this democracy assumes therefore is of crucial importance to us. The Freedom Charter remains the seminal statement of our movement`s vision. Empowerment as laid down in it envisages the radical restructuring of key aspects of the economy so as to destroy the material basis of the White racist power structure.

It is this context that I want to pose the issues of Affirmative Action and Corrective Action.

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 ten 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. And, Sandile Dikeni`s tastes notwithstanding, there is nothing wrong with this.

After all the struggle for democracy was also a struggle to create opportunities for men and women of colour to rise as high as their talents can take them. 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 as policy 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, 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 KZN, 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 has already produced handsome returns for the 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 unrepresentativity 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 tasks ? And, if we say it is not, what will be the consequences of that choice? [because like it or not, these classes and strata are emerging and will evolve.] If the ANC does not relate to them other political forces will. Who will those forces be? With what consequences? What will/should the content of our engagement with these emergent middle classes be ?

The ANC itself is a multi-class movement, yet it would be correct to say that historically our`s is a movement that has received far greater 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 unambigiously in favour of their cause and aspirations.

But we insist that the multi-class bloc constituted under the leadership of the ANC is essential for the transformation process. 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 realization 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 must 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 in 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.

Since 1994 the multi-class character ANC itself has of course changed. Whereas in the past there were no captains of industry in the leading organs of the ANC; today an NEC member heads one of the largest conglomerates trading on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. This corporation, moreover, employs thousands of other ANC members as well as ANC supporters! Prior to 1994 Transnet,one of the biggest state-owned corporations which employs thousands of ANC supporters and members organised in SARHWU, was headed by one Johan Maree. Today its MD is a member of the NEC.

We will neither handle the tensions this new situation can give rise to by denial nor by a blind insistence that there is no conflict potential between the director of a corporation and the workers employed by it.

The Struggles Within the Struggle.

Proceeding from what we have said before, it is clear that 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 ever present racism 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.

The movement itself has consequently been the site of intense politico-ideological struggles around the issues of ethnicity, race, class and gender. During the 1930s, for example, a conservative section of the ANC`s founding fathers led a campaign to expel Communists from the movement and to move it closer to the liberal fraction of the White establishment. At around the same time Dr John L. Dube, led the bulk of the ANC branches of Natal out of the mother body to set up his own regional organisation in opposition to the ANC.[iv] It was only in 1948 that Chief Luthuli and others were able to win back the ground lost to Dube branch by branch, until they could compel re-affiliation of the province.

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 have 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 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 in order 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?

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.

To the ANC, democracy, non-racialism and non-sexism do not mean that every five years Tony Leon and his African domestic worker can stand on the same que in Houghton to vote. They mean creating the conditions in which that domestic worker`s daughter, has a fair chance of competing equally with Tony Leon`s son,

  • for a place at the best schools in South Africa,
  • for a chance to play the same sports, on sporting facilities of the same quality,
  • to have access to the best cultural amenities,
  • to compete with him for a place at Wits,
  • to become a lawyer (or doctor, etc) if she so wishes,
  • and to move in next door to Leon (or even Harry Oppenheimer for that matter), if that is what she wants.

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.

Towards Solutions.

Solving the national question requires that in the first instance we pose the correct questions and not buy into the mythology and metaphysics of ideologists. 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.

To return to Rosa Luxemburg, 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.

With the exception of the most backward and fanatical racists, the Afrikaner petty bourgeois intellectuals have forsaken ethno-nationalism, hoping to constitute a multi-racial coalition of conservative forces to oppose the national liberation movement in the hustings. They can be expected to continue engaging in a modified form of ethnic mobilisation around the issue of the Afrikaans language for the resonances it can produce among sections of the Coloured population, but most realize that such a policy thrust will prove unattractive to the majority of voters.

Ethnic mobilization and entrepreneurship, in various its guises – including that of federalism – however still poses a serious problem and represents the gravest single threat of destabilization and subversion in our new democracy. The tap root of ethnicity and political adventures based on it, are apartheid and the artificial revival of so-called “traditional” institutions undertaken first in the 1920s then pursued with fanatical zest by Verwoerd and his acolytes after 1948. The so- called “traditional leaders” all have, to one degree or another, acquired an interest in these institutions. In addition to power and prestige, these institutions have become a lucrative source of income and patronage. Their propensity to reproduce new generations of ethnic entrepreneurs cannot be under estimated.

A possible solution could be the dis-establishment of so-called “traditional” leaders, which would include their being allowed to retain their ceremonial titles and roles, but they should enjoy no state powers by virtue of these titles. The stipends they presently enjoy from government could also be phased out over time. Such a step would necessarily also require the reduction of the house of traditional leaders to a purely ceremonial one and its eventual elimination as an institution of state. Recognition of a “traditional” leader should become a voluntary matter, with persons voluntarily agreeing to pay allegiance, tribute or any other dues that the office “traditionally” entitled its holder to claim. “Traditional” leaders should be relieved of various powers – such distribution of land – that they still retain, despite the democratic constitution. Their judicial powers should also be subjected to rigorous review to ensure that all South Africans, especially Africans, are completely equal before the law. The time frames for such reforms can be negotiated, but the need for change has to be accepted in principle.

The democratic breakthrough of 1994 has created conditions which enable the ANC and its allies to steadily eradicate the material base of racism in our society. Measures that address the capacity of ethnicists to reproduce ethnicity will greatly assist in undermining its appeal among certain sections of the population. It can be expected that the NP will try to employ a modified form of the “black peril” to mobilise electoral support amongst a segment of the Coloured, Indian and White population, but that too will loose its appeal as the democratic government`s reforms make it plain that there is sufficient wealth to address the quality of life problems of all working people.

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. 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. We should give no quarter to any form of racial discrmination in schooling, employment, housing and recreation; and 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, 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 lutta continua” – the struggle continues!

Z. Pallo Jordan.
Cape Town.
August 1997.



[i] Parties and movements pursuing a programme of transformation have been tempted to do any and everything they think necessary to stay in office.The Social Democratic parties in the west have often done so. But if one weighs the price of losing – as we did here in the Western Cape – one can see why parties find this route irresistible.

[ii] The Poll Tax Rebellion of 1906 was the last military attempt to resist the integrative pressures of South Africa`s evolving capitalism. In spite of the undoubted courage of the rebels, theirs was a forlorn cause which had little hope of success not only because of the disparity in arms.The classic proportions of the tragedy are symbolised by two figures central to the uprising. On the one hand was S`gananda, an old man in his 90s who had started out as a shield carrier in Shaka`s armies whose lifetime spanned the years of glory of the Zulu kingdom and those of its decline; on the other was Cakijana kaGezindaka, a commoner who had lived and worked in the cities, who served as Bambada`s lieutenant but who had in fact been recruited as an informer. Unlike the wars of the previous century, the Poll Tax Rebellion was an instance of secondary resistance – i.e an uprising by a colonised people, mobilised in terms of traditional values and employing traditional methods to resist the effects , rather than the threat, of colonialism. The revolt thus had elements of a modern peasant uprising as well. The prominent role assigned to Cakijana, a commoner (his treachery notwithstanding), in the rebellion also was a portent of the future.

[iii] I would submit that it is no accident that the ethnic chauvinism of the IFP has far greater appeal in the most impoverished parts of rural KZN, while its appeal in the urban townships of KZN is at best shaky.

[iv] Natal seceded from the ICU as well during the years of the ICU`s decline. A.W.G. Champion, one of Kadalie`s deputies of many years standing, led the Natal branches out of the ICU when he could not have his way. The ICU of Natal survived into the mid-1930s, long after the national body had faded into a memory. Champion also played a leading role in the ANC of Natal.