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‘National democratic society’ is an ideologically loaded term, not a harmless turn of phrase

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Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.

South African political discourse is often obfuscated by language calculated to invoke emotion and sentiment. So it is with ‘national democratic society’, which is an offshoot of the ANC’s National Democratic Revolution.

President Cyril Ramaphosa used his reply to the opposition in the State of the Nation Address debate to decry those whom he accused of not supporting a “national democratic society”. 

Their criticisms reflected their “narrow interests”, presumably in contradistinction to the broad, societal concerns taken up by the ANC and the government it heads.

This was, as Marianne Merten writes in Daily Maverick (“Ramaphosa delivers electioneering ‘klap’ for opposition, talks up SA’s progress with Tintswalos in the House”, 15 February 2024), a presidential electioneering “klap” at the opposition in direct line with the message delivered last month in the ANC’s January 8th Statement. True enough, though the president’s narrative speaks audibly if unintentionally to the malaise confronting South Africa.

South African political discourse is often obfuscated by language calculated to invoke emotion and sentiment. So it is with “national democratic society”. How could anyone oppose this, democracy being one of those ideals which almost all in the county claim to believe in?

In fact, the “national democratic society” refers to a particular vision of the country. It is an offshoot of the ANC’s National Democratic Revolution, the party’s master narrative about which my colleague Dr Anthea Jeffery has written at length. 

As set out in its 2007 “Strategy and Tactics” document, the national democratic society “constitutes the ideal state we aspire to as the ANC and the broad democratic movement”.

It is a quasi-messianic vision of a South Africa in which the legacies of our tragic past have been overcome. It is prosperous and socially cohesive. It is a capitalist state, though one with the door very firmly opened for a possible socialist transition. 

But above all, it is “a conscious construct, dependent on conscious action by politically advanced sections of society”.

Brimming with condescension, the idea that the ANC had not only an electoral mandate but also a historical one – to remake the country in its image – does a great deal to explain what has brought South Africa to the current perilous moment.

Further damning his opponents, the president declared: “They want to preserve racial privilege and to reverse the fundamental social and economic transformation that is taking place in our country.”

Transformation has become another staple of South Africa’s lexicon, punted as something akin to a constitutional principle – which is odd, since the word appears nowhere in the Constitution.

Helpfully, the ANC has defined this. 

Its 1998 discussion document, “The State and Social Transformation”, proclaimed: “Transformation of the state entails, first and foremost, extending the power of the NLM over all levers of power: the army, the police, the bureaucracy, intelligence structures, the judiciary, parastatals, and agencies such as regulatory bodies, the public broadcaster, the central bank and so on.”

It went on to add some implausible boilerplate about how this was “not in contradiction” to the constitutional requirements that these institutions were independent and non-partisan, but the implications were clear.

Note that this was about party “hegemony”, not racial preferment or redistribution. 

This, of course, represented a refinement of the ANC’s “cadre deployment” initiative, to systematically place its loyalists throughout the state and society.

Cadre deployment has likewise been much in the news lately because of the Democratic Alliance’s long-running court cases to secure minutes of the ANC’s deployment committee and to declare the practice unconstitutional – the latter being the unambiguous position of the Zondo Commission, which described it as intrinsic to the State Capture project.

Ramaphosa has made it clear that he and his party intend to ignore this part of the commission’s report; since he headed the committee at the height of State Capture, that’s probably personal as much as it is party political (Ramaphosa after all described himself as a “party animal”).

But party political it certainly is. 

Minister Gwede Mantashe used his intervention in the Sona debate to declare defiantly that “the reality is we will do it”. Cadre deployment, he said, had brought transformation. There, at least, he is correct, certainly if one understands transformation as the party defined it back in 1998.

Cadre deployment pushed the agenda or party control over institutions required by the Constitution to function without fear or political favour. In this sense, it has brought the country closer to the national democratic society that the ANC envisages. 

And it denotes corruption in its purest sense: the undermining of carefully established rules for the functioning of a constitutional democracy.

Incidentally, after having handed over at least some of its deployment records to the DA, ANC spokesperson Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri tweeted: “In pursuit of a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic, and prosperous society, the ANC will continue implementing its cadre development policy and deployment strategy to ensure that individuals with impressive qualifications, experience and credentials are deployed to build a better life for all South Africans.”

Based on past evidence, one might be forgiven for reading that with scepticism.

The ANC has also celebrated the Gauteng Division of the High Court in Pretoria’s ruling against the DA’s application on the constitutionality of the practice. 

The case will be appealed and discussed by legal minds – so, it’s nowhere near the endgame yet – though it’s hard to see how it could be constitutional for a political party to exercise political manipulation of appointments to the civil service when Section 197 clearly states: “No employee of the public service may be favoured or prejudiced only because that person supports a particular political party or cause.”

In one respect, though, the ANC’s national democratic society cannot claim much success – certainly not over the past 15 years. 

Its 2007 conceptualisation recognised that it “should be founded on a thriving economy, the structure of which should reflect the natural endowments of the country and the creativity that a skilled population can offer”. It went on about the importance of small business, the importance of technology and so on.

Between 2010 and the present, South Africa’s economy grew annually by an average of only 1.4%. This falls way short of the 5.4% that the National Development Plan promoted, and even further from the 7% that we at the Institute of Race Relations have argued is possible in our latest policy paper, Blueprint for Growth.

Central to this has been just that “conscious action” that the ANC – as the leader of the “most politically advanced sections of society” – made in pursuing its “national democratic society”. 

It gave the ruling party the dominance it claims while hollowing out the state that it needed for economic growth and durable development.

It produced broken state-owned enterprises, fraying logistics, a captured school system that is not preparing learners for the world of work, an often incapacitated bureaucracy, and, as a consequence, an anaemic economy.

Indeed, Ricardo Hausmann’s Harvard-based Growth Lab argued in an analysis last year that the country confronted two major blockages to growth: an incapable state and South Africa’s spatial exclusion. The first has been compromised by political choices, while it’s hard to see the second being addressed until the first can be rectified.

Simply put, prosperity in a relatively sophisticated economy like South Africa’s is not and never was compatible with the damaging ideological fixations with which the country has been encumbered.

The Growth Lab’s report notes damningly: “Empowerment of a few has de facto come at the expense of the many.” 

Understand this not only in terms of business deals, but in terms of the ideological and political imperatives of the ANC, and one can appreciate precisely what has taken place in South Africa and what is at stake for the future.

And as “conscious action” has brought us to this point, it is only conscious choices that will extricate us. 

The “national democratic society” must be understood for what it is and what it cannot be.

South Africa can choose the path of the so-called national democratic society, or it can choose constitutional governance and economic growth. 

It cannot have both. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • District Six says:

    Ironic. Your organisation calls its propaganda mouthpiece “the Friend”.

  • Skinyela Skinyela says:

    NDR is a vehicle to deliver the NDS. SO, Would you rather have a national undemocratic revolution that will deliver a national undemocratic society?

    The word transformation does not necessarily have to appear in the constitution, as is, before we can agree that the constitution permits the transformation of society.
    Section 1(a) talks about the achievement of equality… You can’t achieve equality without transforming an unequal society.

  • J vN says:

    The bizarre judgement about cadre deployment did come from a judge who is no doubt a deployed cadre himself. He was hardly going to admit that he only got the job because of his political connections and acceptable hue, now was he?

    • Skinyela Skinyela says:

      Would you be so kind as to share with us his cv? , since it is clear that you know his qualifications, experience, work ethic, etc, to conclude that he got the job because of political connections.

  • Michele Rivarola says:

    Deployment of party chosen senior personnel happens worldwide and is the norm rather than the exception. The problem with SA is the level at which it is done, the strings attached to it and the expectations from it. It would not be a problem if the people deployed were competent and honest. The ruling party makes policy, the civil service implements it, it is a fairly simple equation. In SA the civil service makes policy which is anathema in any society where delivery is the prime task of the civil service and which is why SA is fast becoming a failed state.

  • Jabu Mhlanga says:

    Heading for the cliff…unknowingly

  • Henry Henry says:

    Have Kollapen, Tshiqi and Majiedt resigned yet? They’ve been outed as cadre deployed Concourt judges. Do they not have any sense off shame? In how many cases over the years did they decide in favour of the ANC? In favour of a national democratic revolution? Is the constitution or the Freedom Charter their actual guide? They simply sit in their dishonoured posts and say nothing? People wait with abated breaths.

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