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Explaining Mandela’s Strategy in 1994

Ben Turok is the director of the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA) and a former ANC MP. See his Wikipedia profile.

In my earlier article on the inadequacies of the ANC government performance after it took power in 1994 I did not offer any explanation for the weaknesses. I want to try to remedy that here.

These days it is sometimes suggested that Nelson Mandela and his comrades “sold out” in order to take office. Those of us who take politics seriously reject this view because it flies in the face of the conduct of the ANC prior to the transition and is out of character with the personality of Mandela himself.

The true picture of his personality is portrayed by his arch opponent Neil Barnard, South Africa’s head of intelligence, in his book Secret Revolution where he reports that he had numerous meetings with Mandela as prisoner and found that he was hugely impressive, dignified, rational and highly principled. He clearly was no pushover.

So why did the ANC make large concessions in 1994 and in the following years?

First, the ANC has defined the transition as a “democratic breakthrough”, a rather modest characterisation of what I believe was a political revolution. It was actually a negotiated settlement with concessions on both sides leading to a government of national unity which was a constraint on change.

Should the ANC have held out for more radical measures? Some of us believe that to be the case, especially with respect to the economy, but we may be wrong.

What were the limiting conditions ?

  1. Although the ANC had done some work on a future programme for government in the Reconstruction and Development Programme and Ready To Govern, these were only broad policy documents. There was no plan of how an ANC government would actually take over the administration of the country, nor did it have trained personnel to run the country. Consequently it took over most of the personnel from the apartheid regime and only replaced them incrementally in the following years. Hence the actual arrangements of transition were carried out by apartheid officials, especially in the Treasury.
  2. Some people believe that the ANC leadership were fearful of a white counter-revolution in the early years of the transition, which imposed limits on any more radical measures. In his book, Barnard discloses how close the country came to a holocaust. We have to acknowledge that there were substantial forces in existence at the time which could have caused havoc and did so at times with the forces of security still in the hands of apartheid personnel.
  3. While the ANC enjoyed huge mass support and parts of the country were ungovernable, the forces which benefitted from apartheid remained extremely powerful, especially – but not only – in the economy.
  4. Since the economy was in poor shape, the need to improve its image internationally seemed to be vital. And, since the ANC was often portrayed as a communist-led movement, intent on revolution, the new government hastened to appoint internationally acceptable personalities to run the Reserve Bank, Ministry of Finance and other key economic posts. The ANC and government leadership went to great pains to reassure the IMF and World Bank that they would not introduce economic and financial policies which would depart from orthodoxy.
  5. It has to be conceded that there were some in the ANC leadership who were impatient for power and for the fruits it would bring. These individuals showed their intentions ever more clearly as the ANC control became more sure of itself. Indeed, the new class of black businesspeople saw great opportunities for personal enrichment and continue to do so now.
  6. What is remarkable is that while all and sundry in the ANC camp condemned apartheid as a system of colonial exploitation based on cheap labour and a huge army of unemployed which made the low wages possible for ever, many of the same people have not used their power within the state to change the system fundamentally. Instead they are happy to derive their wealth from the same system. The result is that we remain one of the most unequal societies in the world and there are no indications that black business wants it otherwise.
  7. To return to the debates in 1994, there were indeed critical voices which sought to introduce more radical economic and social policies which were rejected by the top leadership. The RDP was one such voice which was soon closed down on spurious grounds such as budget allocation difficulties. And there were others such as Merg (Macro Economic Research Groups). The main problem seemed to be that the leadership did not have a sense of what economic development meant and how it could be promoted. It often referred to people participation and bottom-up development in documents, but these concepts were not introduced into actual programmes. Even much later in drafting the National Development Plan, the focus was on “a capable state” and references to development were resisted.

It is time for a proper review of the performance of the ANC government since 1994, taking into account the whole context and setting out the reasons for what has happened. I hope someone does this soon. DM

Ben Turok is Editor of New Agenda, S A Journal of Social and Economic Policy.


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