South Africa


How do we understand our freedom?

Photo: Raymond Suttner

While Freedom Day is an important part of South Africa’s calendar, it is controversial. This relates to suggestions that the settlement of 1994 comprised a ‘sell-out’ to the whites and corporate power, or gaining political power while ceding economic power. These questions feed into current controversies and need serious debate.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

How do we celebrate Freedom Day, or should we celebrate Freedom Day at all in South Africa, 24 years after the first democratic elections, years that have seen very mixed results, evoking joy but also great disappointment? Many are cynical about this day, with good reason. Abahlali baseMjondolo, an organised shack dwellers’ movement, refers to the day as “unfreedom day”. Others on the left refer to Freedom Day as comprising an “elite pact” or a “Faustian pact”.

Let us start by remembering that 27 April 1994 was a historic moment in itself, no matter what happened afterwards. Being able to vote is referred to as a universally adult franchise. In the context of South Africa, where black men and women, especially Africans were often referred to as “boys” and “girls” by many whites. Achieving the vote and claiming their personal dignity as full adult citizens in their own country is not insignificant, though their claims go beyond the franchise.

There are some who dismiss the freedom that was achieved on that day as fatally flawed by compromises. But let us look at the conditions of the time. The bloodshed of the then-Natal area had cost many, many lives. After the unbanning of ANC, SACP, PAC and other previously illegal organisations that violence spread to the then-PWV (Pretoria, Witwatersrand, Vaal) area, now known as Gauteng. Innocent people were killed, insofar as they were seen as the support base of the ANC, which was correctly expected to win future elections. But the violence was even more widespread. Some may not know, or have forgotten that it included random killings on passenger trains – a phenomenon that had earlier been seen in places like Belgium, emanating from fascist groups.

It was not whites, with few exceptions, who were dying, but black people aplenty, not purely those engaged in the struggle. There were random attacks on townships or settlements, including the massacre at Boiphatong in 1993.

When Nelson Mandela initiated negotiations from prison in the 1980s, at about the same time as overtures were being made by the ANC leadership in Lusaka, the object was to end the stalemate where the apartheid regime was unable to defeat the liberation forces in the various terrains on which they operated – in the streets, factories, schools, communities, and on the battlefield; and equally, where the forces of liberation did not have the power to defeat the SADF militarily. As Mandela would say, the ANC did not confront an enemy on its knees. It could not simply dictate terms of surrender. (At the same time, sections of the apartheid regime were also ready to talk recognising that they could not achieve a military solution).

People were dying, and in such a situation one cannot operate with ideas of “pure” solutions that are inapplicable to adversaries who still had considerable power to destabilise any future democracy. (This became the approach of the ANC-led alliance as a whole, with no member of leadership dissenting from the ultimate settlement).

There was nothing pure about the transition to democracy, because initially many of those who were involved in dirty tricks remained around, well-armed and capable of creating chaos instead of democratic development. These forces had to be neutralised.

This was a classic situation for achieving a negotiated solution which would create conditions for democracy to flourish. That did not mean that democracy would automatically flourish and that the opportunities that were opened through political power to ensure social and economic transformation would be realised.

Whether democracy was sustained and developed and continued to unfold into greater and greater freedom depended on the ANC leadership and a range of organisations that had long experience in fighting for their rights on a range of terrains. But, insofar as economic power was primarily concentrated in forces that had accumulated wealth in the apartheid era, the ANC and its allies would, even if they did their best, confront considerable resistance to a transformatory programme.

Secret deals?

It is said that deals were made with local capital and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) whereby black people would attain political power, but that they would allow the concentration of wealth – primarily in white people and companies – to remain unchanged. I was in the ANC leadership at the time, and no such deal was discussed or agreed on. The ANC Department of Economic Policy (DEP) had no power to make any undertakings about the future that might hinder transformation. I understand that their dealings with the IMF, through their participation in the Transitional Executive Council (TEC) at the Codesa negotiating forum, comprised no such undertakings. This is not something on which I bear direct knowledge. But Tito Mboweni, then a member of the TEC, representing the ANC DEP, has spoken of this, inter alia, in 2004:

One of the problems/constraints facing the economy at that time was that the country only had foreign reserves to cover for plus/minus three weeks of imports. This was indeed a crisis for an economy as big as ours…. The then Minister of Finance, Mr Derek Keys, approached the TEC to negotiate an agreement with us for a joint approach to the International Monetary Fund… for assistance. This was a difficult request since there were so many strategic and tactical questions to consider. An example in this regard was the question of whether the apartheid government was trying to lock us into an IMF structural adjustment programme via the back door, thereby tying the hands of the future democratic government.

. [W]e agreed to that request by the then government to approach the IMF for the required balance of payments support called the Compensatory and Contingency Financing Facility (CCFF). There were no conditionalities attached since this was a soft loan as it were. However, we had to provide the IMF with a ‘Statement on Economic Policy’. The statement was fairly simple: assure the IMF that the future government [would] pursue prudent macroeconomic policies. This was something that the ANC in particular had adopted as an approach as early as 1992 in a document entitled ‘Ready to Govern’. We did not sell out!

However, this ‘Statement on Economic Policy’ has been described by some as the beginning of neo-liberal economic policies that were to be pursued by the future government….Prof Sampie Terreblanche, of the University of Stellenbosch has said in a book entitled A History of lnequality in South Africa, 1652 2002, that “In 1993 the corporate sector and some ANC leaders reached a hugely important elite compromise. This happened before the Transitional Executive Council (TEC) accepted a secret $850 million loan from the IMF to help tide the country over balance of payments difficulties in November 1993” (p96). He continues to say that “Before the TEC signed the loan agreement, the corporate sector and the NP government on the one hand and ANC leaders on the other signed a secret protocol on economic policy … (they) agreed with the IMF, the TEC committed itself to a neo-liberal, export-oriented economic policy and a ‘redistribution through growth’ strategy’”.

Mboweni continues:

I was one of the people involved, and I can say with confidence that Prof Sampie Terreblanche is totally and completely wrong. There was no secret meeting of the corporate sector and the core leaders of the ANC that I am aware of to agree on a secret document. [My emphasis-RS] This was a TEC matter handled through the sub-council on finance. Naturally, the delegates to the sub-council consulted their principals. But I emphasise that any careful reading of the statement will find no contradiction withReady to Govern’.

(Extract from ‘The Foundation has been laid’, speech by Mr TT Mboweni, then Governor of The South African Reserve Bank, at the Black Management Forum, Gallagher Estate,18 June 2004. (See also IMF document, addressed to Members of the Executive Board, 1 December 1993, ‘South Africa-Staff Report for the 1993 Article 1V Consultation, and Request for a Purchase under the Compensatory and contingency Financing Facility’. EBS/93/192, pages 51-55, which discuss the loan).

If there was a secret deal, who were parties to this and where is the secret protocol? Why is it not made available by those who allege this? Those who allege that ought to produce the names and the document.

It is true, however, that the conditions of the time made it necessary to do whatever could be done to ensure investment and deter those who may have wanted to destabilise the new democracy. The new state inherited junk status – a huge debt, yet it had to finance welfare and education and a range of other goods previously primarily accessible to whites, but now committed to the people of the country as a whole, especially those who had earlier been denied access to these.

In order to secure the new democratic state and to stabilise the economy, concessions had to be made to reassure potential investors. There had to be compromises, and only dreamers live in a world of “no compromise.” It is in this context that we need to understand the introduction of the Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) macroeconomic policy. I myself criticised GEAR in the ANC National Executive Committee at the time of its introduction, at a meeting in Belville in 1996, but on the basis of the way it was introduced without following organisational processes in reaching what became a binding decision. I nevertheless recognise that if not GEAR, (with which I was not then fully acquainted), some measures had to be undertaken to ensure economic stability.

Macroeconomic policy, and what was and was not done around the early 1990s, is not something in which I was directly involved. All I do now, as a member of leadership at the time, is indicate that we agreed to no secret deals. Consequently, I have no apologies to offer.

Those who speak of a flawed transition need to be frank and tell us whether the achievement of political democracy was nevertheless a gain and if so, how we safeguard it. They also need to look back to the environment of the time and consider the conditions under which the ‘New South Africa’ emerged – and say whether or not measures needed to be taken to stabilise the economy, and if so, what ought to have been done.

Democratic gains are not irreversible

What we have learnt in recent years is that the gains of 1994, whatever their limitations may have been, are fragile and not irreversible. The Jacob Zuma years, particularly, demonstrate that it is possible to hollow out the democratic state, to render it dysfunctional and put it to the service of outsiders. This is a distinct feature in some ways independent of the broad corruption that reigns in the ranks of the ANC and various spheres of government, through tenders and other modes of operation. “State capture” is a form of treason, undermining democracy and the sovereign independence of the South African state.

The election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC and state president has started an uneven process of remedying the irregularities and criminality of the Zuma era. It is important that those of us who want government to succeed as a democratic project, support these efforts and try to strengthen the hands of all who want to see a clean-up, and weaken those who want more of the same that we experienced under Zuma.

New debate over the route to transformation

That there was not an “original sin” in the 1994 settlement, or that one can make a case for stabilisation measures like GEAR, does not mean that everything was done in the early years of the transition or later, to achieve transformation, or that would ensure a “better life for all”. Many of the measures that were initiated appear to have enabled the development of a new consumption-based bourgeoisie and resulted in de-industrialisation. (See Moeletsi Mbeki and Nobantu Mbeki, A Manifesto for Social Change. Picador, 2016). Ought the post-apartheid governments not to have made their support more conditional, with incentives and disincentives that provided assistance, insofar as the emerging bourgeoisie created jobs and engaged in productive activities? This forms part of wider debates that need to be held, if the ‘clean-up’ under the Ramaphosa-led administration is also to address broader hopes and aspirations that have not been realised.

Deepening democracy

Defending and advancing democracy is not simply returning to 1994, for understanding democracy should not mean that it is a single event or series of such events, like achieving the vote in 1994 and respecting the Constitution, adopted in 1996. The understanding that many of us had in 1994 and the early years of the transition was of an ever-deepening and broadening democratic project. We believed, and I still see it as correct, that we should be continually widening the scope of democratic participation, ensuring that all people play a role in building our democracy. Also, as science and the economy develop, what can be provided to members of society continues to grow. We need to find ways of ensuring that those resources go to those in need and do not further enrich those already well-endowed. DM

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and emeritus professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s Prison was reissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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