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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 12, No. 35, 10 October 2013

In this Issue:


Red Alert

The IMF, the DA and the local anti-worker hack-pack

By Cde Jeremy Cronin, SACP 1st Deputy General Secretary

Last week the IMF released its annual Article IV Country Report on South Africa. As could be expected, this leading organ of global neo-liberalism once more advocated greater labour market flexibility, the preservation of labour brokering, wage moderation and trade liberalisation. The Report acknowledges the low levels of fixed investment by the private sector, and the crisis levels of unemployment and inequality in SA. But it is silent on the responsibility of its own macro-economic policy prescriptions for the reproduction of these structural problems.

The Report is also unsympathetic to the critical intervention required for placing our economy onto a new, more inclusive and job-creating growth path - namely through a state-led industrial policy programme. Its brief paragraph on industrial policy is stuck in the old myth that industrial policy is about the "hopeless" task of governments second-guessing the market by seeking to "pick winners". The successful Asian industrialisation policies were not focused on picking winners, but rather on weeding out losers and, above all, on disciplining capital. This is exactly what our own Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP) seeks to do.

For all of these reasons, COSATU was absolutely right to come out with guns blazing against the underlying perspectives contained in the IMF Report.

Nonetheless, the Report is still worth reading, not least because what it actually says is frequently not quite how the local anti-worker, media hack-pack and opposition parties have chosen to present it to the South African public. The Mail & Guardian headlined its report "IMF reports doom and gloom for SA economy" (not quite true, but chiming with all the other dooming and glooming in the weekly tabloid). TJ Strydom story in Times Live is headlined "IMF urges SA to rein in trade unions". The DA's Tim Harris released a statement titled "IMF Report: DA calls on Minister Gordhan to disregard COSATU's hysterical criticism". The DA statement tells us that "COSATU represents the ultimate set of entrenched interests in SA, and their blocking of policy reforms is the most damaging constraint to our country's growth". (I note in passing that the DA statement conveniently ignores the IMF Report's advice that government should go ahead and implement e-tolling as a "quick-win" measure to "restore investor confidence". But, I suppose, despite the DA's adulation of the IMF, we couldn't expect its "shadow finance minister" to issue a statement entitled "IMF calls on Minister Gordhan to disregard DA's hysterical criticism of e-tolls".)

The drift in all of these interventions is part of the broader narrative that the commercial media and the DA have been punting since at least the 2008 outbreak of the global capitalist crisis - sow panic and turn the resulting fear and loathing against the organised working class, COSATU in particular.

The so-called doyen of South African liberal journalism, Allister Sparks carries this agenda forward in his own extolling of the IMF Report ("The Way Forward - Wanted: an economic strategy", Cape Times, October 9). Sparks tells us that the IMF has "recommended a more flexible labour market framework, greater policy certainty, scrapping of plans to ban labour brokers…and…that we get on with essential structural reforms by implementing the National Development Plan." All of this is true. All of these recommendations will be found in the IMF Report. But Sparks' summary of the IMF Report is so one-sided that it amounts to a deliberate piece of distortion.

What are the structural reforms the IMF recommends? It recommends labour market flexibility, yes, but it also recommends that we deal much more decisively with the extraordinarily high levels of corporate concentration, price collusion, and profit-taking. Of course, Sparks and Harris are entirely silent about this dimension of the IMF report and yet it is a central theme. The IMF Report devotes considerable attention to the need for what it calls "product market reform" - a polite technical term for dealing with oligopolistic pricing by "large incumbent firms". The oligopolistic nature of key sectors of our economy, the Report notes, is undermining new entrants and the development of SMMEs. Oligopolies add excessive costs to downstream users and consumers of over-priced commodities, making our exports uncompetitive, but providing for very high profits for a handful of dominant corporations.

"South African companies are relatively profitable compared to EM [emerging market] peers", the IMF Report notes, "and appear particularly so in sectors with high concentration. New entrants, especially SMEs, often find it difficult to compete with existing firms that have high market dominance, despite government support for startups…"(IMF, p.56). The Report goes on to commend the Competition Commission for the work it has done in sanctioning collusive corporate behaviour and recommends strengthening the Commission's powers and increasing the fines levied on offending colluders. It even suggests that SA emulate Mexico's equivalent commission which has the power to press criminal charges. Again, Harris and Sparks don't mention any of this, of course.

In contrast to the DA's one-sided finger-pointing at COSATU for curbing growth, the IMF Report tells us that "research suggests product market reform [i.e. ending monopoly capitalist pricing] in South Africa could boost potential growth by 1.2 to 1.5 percent…" (IMF p.12)

What about the IMF's recommendation that government must move ahead and implement the NDP? Sparks proudly holds this aloft as an anti-left trophy. The SACP has repeatedly warned against "monumentalising" an eclectic and relatively long (484-page) NDP base document. It contains some generally acceptable 20-year goals, some excellent if still general sectoral chapters, some highly problematic policies, many internal contradictions, and numbers of interesting if speculative proposals. In short, the NDP is a mixed bag. So what does the IMF Report understand as the NDP's core pillars? It is worth quoting the relevant section:

"The NDP focuses on a range of policy areas, especially infrastructure, education, health care, social protection, building a capable state, and promoting accountability and fighting corruption.

  • Infrastructure. The plan proposes to expand electricity capacity, water supply, public transport, and transport infrastructure to facilitate commodity exports.
  • Education and training. Actions include: improving the management of the education system; merit based school principal selections; improving teachers' performance with training remuneration incentives; adult education and a variety of informal training programs.
  • Health care. The plan aims at improving health management and implementing a national health insurance system to improve the quality of care and public facilities.
  •  Building a capable state. The NDP aims at enhancing the role of the Public Service Commission to monitor standards and improve recruitment, and improving relations between national, provincial, and local governments.
  • Fighting corruption and enhancing accountability, by giving greater power to the Tender Compliance Monitoring Office, insulating anti-corruption agencies from political interference, setting up a dedicated prosecution team, specialist courts and judges, and developing accountability frameworks." (IMF, p.34)

Give or take a formulation here and there (for example the one-sided emphasis on transport infrastructure for commodity exports - and not also for local beneficiation) these pillars of the NDP, as conceptualised by the IMF, are perfectly acceptable.

There are, of course, missing pillars. As already noted, the IMF Report is relatively negative about a state-led industrial policy programme. The NDP, in the weak chapter 3 of the document, is only marginally more supportive of re-industrialisation. On the other hand, while the IMF Report notes the dysfunctional nature of our apartheid spatial legacy, it fails to engage with the progressive proposals in the relevant NDP chapter 8 ("Transforming human settlement and the national space economy"). Instead, in probably the most ludicrous of its proposals, the IMF Report suggests that "more competition in the mini-bus sector would reduce commuter costs" (p.52) for poor households disadvantaged by being located on the distant peripheries of our towns and cities. Instead of the NDP's proposals for active spatial transformation to overcome the dreadful legacy of racialised apartheid geography, the IMF proposes even more competition in the hand-to-mouth, over-traded, violence prone taxi sector! That could only be a view from a distant Washington.

The biggest silence in the IMF Report is, however, its inability or unwillingness to connect existing macro- and micro-economic distortions in our economy with its own macro-economic policy prescriptions which, alas, have too often been pursued locally. The Report quite correctly notes that the key vulnerability of our economy to "external shocks" lies in our excessive dependence on "hot" money, short-term inflows into shares and bonds and the relative weakness of foreign direct investment coupled with the local investment strike by the major corporations. These distortions are directly related to the 1996 GEAR macro-economic policy package that propelled excessive exchange control and trade liberalisation, dual listings for major South African conglomerates (Anglo, SASOL, Liberty Life, Old Mutual, etc.), and the resultant massive capital flight out of South Africa.

To overcome these distortions we need to move away from the notion that we have to endlessly and exclusively court short-term investor-sentiment. We also need to direct and discipline capital - exactly what was agreed, for instance, but not enforced by way of community reinvestment requirements at the Financial Sector Summit five year ago.

Most of the local media and mainstream economic commentators treat these IMF Reports (selectively read) as if they were the Ten Commandments themselves descended from Mount Washington. Before we get into too much of a froth about our own latest IMF country report, it's worth remembering what Joseph Stiglitz has to say on the subject of country reports. During his time as Chair of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, Stiglitz says the US administration happily disregarded their annual IMF US-country report as just the cut-and-paste views of "some second-rate IMF researchers". Given the dismal capacities of our own hack-pack media commentators, with the bar set so much lower here, I suppose we should be prepared to be slightly less judgemental of the IMF.


Who are 'we'? - The Nostalgia for a Rainbow that never was

Jeremy Cronin
(Conference on "Egalitarian Liberalism: What are its possible futures in SA?", Johannesburg, 3-4 October 2013)

"while both [moral and political discourse] concern human action, political discourse alone concerns public action. One of the crucial questions at stake is the creation of a collective identity, a 'we'. In the question 'What shall we do?', the 'we' is not given but rather constitutes a problem. Since in political discourse there is always disagreement about the possible courses of action, the identity of 'we' that is going to be created through a specific form of collective action might indeed be seen as the central question." (Mouffe 2005, p.50)

It is nearly two decades since the 1994 democratic breakthrough in South Africa, and much has been achieved since then. Yet in many quarters there is a sense of disillusion. "The honeymoon is over", we are told, "Mandela's legacy has been betrayed". And so, once more, the chorus goes up: "cry the beloved country". It is not the intention of this paper to suggest that the present South African reality is rosy, that all is well. Indeed, our situation is characterised by crisis-levels of systemic poverty, inequality and unemployment.

However, disillusionment in the present is, in my view, often attributable to a misguided nostalgia for a rainbow nation that never was, for a "normalised" South Africa in a "normalised" world that equally never were. These illusions about the "peaceful" (which, alas, it too was not) democratic transition and its immediate outcome are not just a misreading of that recent past, they were (and are) responsible for deflecting attention away from the systemic realities that have reproduced the socio-economic crises confronting us in the present.

What will be considered in this intervention are the terms in which the democratic breakthrough in SA was (and still is) often imagined. I will go on to argue that, while the current National Development Plan - Vision 2030 (NDP) contains many positive proposals, its political framing reflects a nostalgic attempt to resurrect past illusions. Throughout this intervention I will be drawing in particular on the work of Chantal Mouffe and her critique of the de-politicisation of politics by "Third Way" and other ideological constructs of the "political". Her defence of a plural, democratic, and what she calls "agonistic" politics, casts a very useful critical light on our own reality and I believe that her work deserves to be better known in South Africa.

The narrative about South Africa's democratic transition that I intend critiquing tends to rest on three problematic and interrelated pillars:

  • The notion that post-1994 South Africa was grounded in the adoption of a relatively self-evident set of "universal liberal democratic values";
  • The idea that this adoption was essentially a process of transactional exchange, of "social contracting" between South Africans, and between South Africa and the world; and
  • Born of this social contracting, a new, equally self-evident identity emerged - "us", "we-South Africans" - a shared identity that was meant to lay the basis for a new democratic dispensation that would preclude contestation and conflict, in which the constitutive nature of power could be excluded from politics. Politics, it was assumed, would henceforth be conducted on the basis of rational exchange and agreement among South Africans represented by elites whom "we" would all trust.

There is a feedback loop among these elements. In recognising "ourselves" in supposedly universal values, we confirmed their assumed universality and the world embraced us as a returned prodigal, an honoured member of the family of nations, capable, indeed, even of "punching above our weight". In so recognising ourselves, we implicitly signed the contractual invoice, over and over again, for a double compact amongst "us-ourselves" and between "us" and the world.

All too often this imaginary construct of our once new democracy constitutes the base-line against which present failures and betrayals are imputed. Not only does this misread the nature of the democratic transition, leading to inevitable disappointment, it also acts as an impediment to diagnosing and addressing the real and undoubtedly grave challenges we confront.

The birth of a nation

On February 5, 1999, in his last state of the nation address to parliament, state president Nelson Mandela looked back over the previous five-years with justifiable satisfaction. In April 1994 the first non-racial elections had taken place. The newly elected government of national unity had rapidly set about consolidating democratic institutions, and parliament had abolished discriminatory laws, introducing a raft of new legislation. In 1996 a progressive Bill of Rights and Constitution were adopted. This was the context in which Mandela could tell parliament:

"For a country that not many years ago was the polecat of the world, South Africa has truly undergone a revolution in its relations with the international community.  The doors of the world have opened to South Africa, precisely because of our success in achieving things that humanity as a whole holds dear."

While there is surely much of value underpinning this statement, the discursive elements at play are not nearly as self-evident as they might seem. In the first place, notice how it is "South Africa" and not the "apartheid system" that is deemed to have been "the polecat of the world". Yet, ironically, it was Mandela's own organisation the African National Congress that campaigned hard and long internationally, from its inception in 1912, to condemn and eventually to isolate white minority rule in South Africa. In the 1960s and early 1970s Mandela, not the apartheid system, was labelled a "terrorist" in the leading capitals of western democracy.

Implicit in Mandela's statement above is, then, a symbolic, double transaction. In the first place, in exchange for "South Africa/us" all taking on the former polecat identity of a white minority regime, "we" are "purchasing" the "buy-in" of former supporters of that regime, as co-authors of "our success".

In the second place, in exchange for "our success in achieving things that humanity as a whole holds dear" (note the universalising assumptions at play), and in exchange for us drawing a veil over the complicity of major western powers in supporting the apartheid regime - "[t]he doors of the world have opened to South Africa/[us]". This is clearly a reference to "our" readmission to a wide array of international sporting, cultural, political and economic bodies… and global markets. I suspect that this claim was said not just as a matter of fact, which it partly was, but also in hope. It should be remembered that in the mid-1990s there was the largely unfulfilled anticipation that a "normalised" and globally acclaimed South Africa would benefit from major flows of foreign direct investment, a "post-apartheid dividend" akin to the Marshall Aid that post-1945 Western Europe received.

The TRC1

Similar discursive moves, confusions and disappearances can be found in the official report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Report presents the TRC's core task as a "bridge-building" exercise "designed to help lead the nation away from a deeply divided past to a future founded on the recognition of human rights and democracy." (1, 4, 2)  In carrying out this task the TRC was to focus on "gross human rights abuses" between 1960 and May 1994. This tended to limit its examination of the systemic abuses of apartheid (and preceding colonial and segregationist regimes), as well as the kinship of apartheid SA with centuries of colonial, semi-colonial and neo-colonial oppression of Africa and other parts of the world. The TRC tended to further limit its scope by focusing largely (although not exclusively) on "gross human rights abuses" at the individual level (torture, for instance) rather than at the broad socially systemic level of violence (migrant labour or forced removals, for instance).

Within these constrictive bounds how, then, did the TRC propose to construct a bridge from a divided past into a reconciled and united present? With the systemic features of the past (and their contemporary legacy) largely displaced, the TRC Report started to rely increasingly on the construction of a new "us" at the individual moral level.  It does this by asking all of "us" to identify ourselves with both perpetration and victimhood. The Report, for instance, regrets that its focus on gross human rights might have:

"drawn the nation's attention away from the more commonplace violations.  The result is that ordinary South Africans do not see themselves as represented by those the Commission defines as perpetrators, failing to recognise the `little perpetrator' in each one of us… It is only by recognising the potential for evil in each one of us that we can take full responsibility for ensuring that such evil will never be repeated." (1, 5, 108)

But if the TRC Report asks us to recognise the perpetrator in each of ourselves, it also tends to construct us all as victims of the past. Elaborating on its own version of its statutory mandate, the TRC Report says:

"[I]t was clear that the underlying objective of the legislators was to make it possible for the Commission to recognise and acknowledge as many people as possible as victims of the past political conflict." (1, 4, 82, my emphasis)

What is especially pertinent about this passage is not the wide scope of victimhood as such, but that it is looking at victims of the "past political conflict", and not victims of a semi-colonial SYSTEM of white minority rule. There is an important difference. In a sense, every South African could be said to have been a victim of the political conflict, at least in the banal sense that everyone's life in South Africa was disrupted in some way or another. This, in turn, creates space for the claims we find, for instance, in the Report's chapter on "Business and Labour" (4, 2).  Here, one section of big business blames another section of business. The SA Breweries submission tells us:

"English-speaking business leaders often felt marginalised under apartheid, having little or no influence over government policy…In a real sense, such businesses were also victims of the system." (4, 2, 52)

The TRC Report is not necessarily endorsing this view, but it is quoted along with other contrary perspectives. Afrikaans-speaking white business (the Afrikaner Handelsinstituut's submission) concedes mistakes, but locates these in the context of "separate development" being "part and parcel of the majority of the white community's thinking at the time". (4, 2, 56). We are on the edge of an absurd reductionism - English-speaking business blaming Afrikaans-speaking counterparts, who blame the political ambience, the politicians blame the securocrats, the securocrats blame a few "rotten apples" in their ranks, and the "rotten apples" return the blame back to senders. This was, indeed, precisely what the evidence to the TRC provided by apartheid-era security branch major Craig Williamson sought to do:

"Our weapons, ammunition, uniforms, vehicles, radios and other equipment were all developed and provided by industry.  Our finances and banking were done by bankers who even gave us covert credit cards for covert operations". (4, 2, 3)

Perhaps the real victims were the actual perpetrators, the bad apples, the ones who are now carrying the blame for all us little perpetrators?

Our common South African-ness can be affirmed, national unity can be built on the grounds that we are all little perpetrators, all fallen beings.  But we were also all victims, and we are all victims of…our own perpetrations!  By shifting from the political to the domain of individual morality the TRC Report is unable to build an effective bridge from the past into a democratic future. The Report chooses to interpellate "us" as perpetrators-victims, having built its reading of the past around that duality.

But there should really have been two sets of axes and not one - the real counterpart of "perpetrators" (or rather active defenders of the apartheid system) were "liberation fighters"; while the counterpart of "victims" would be "beneficiaries" of the system. By reducing the past to a single axis (perpetrators/victims) two things get obscured. Major beneficiaries - monopoly capital, for instance - tend to be airbrushed out, and along with this their role in pioneering the cornerstones of apartheid (migrant labour, pass laws, job reservation, native reserves - later Bantustans), and the persisting systemic legacy of all of this.  Conversely, by failing to sufficiently acknowledge the millions of South Africans who were not just victims, but also active self-emancipators, the TRC Report tends to reserve activism for perpetration. As a bridge into a new future, therefore, the Report elides the notion of an active citizenry or, better still, of a progressive bloc of forces involved in ongoing struggle to advance, deepen and defend the new democratic space.

The same problematic asymmetry is to be found in the following sentence of the TRC Report:

"The broad challenge of reconciliation between those who benefited from the past and those who continue to be disadvantaged by past discrimination is central to the vision contained in the postamble to the interim Constitution." (1.5, 24)

Past discrimination is, correctly, understood to have an on-going impact on the victims ("those who continue to be.."); but the persisting reality of ill-begotten powers, wealth and privileges is set back into the past tense, elided in the syntactical asymmetry of this apparently symmetrical sentence. What is at stake in this asymmetry is the legitimacy and sheer reality of the present powers of those who benefited from the past. If you do not question existing structures of power, wealth and privilege, then you are not opening up any perspective of an on-going, just struggle for redistribution and democratic transformation by those who continue to be impoverished. At best, you are pleading for some kind of charitable concern on the part of those who just "happen" to be privileged, wealthy and powerful.

All of this chimes with the TRC's fundamental de-politicisation of politics.

"The negotiated agreement in South Africa averted the costly return to the politics of confrontation and mass mobilisation"  (1, 5, 57)

Contrary to this view, the negotiations were themselves a particular mode of political confrontation.  Indeed, not only was there eye-ball to eye-ball negotiating show-downs, but, sadly, deaths in political violence soared in this period.  The negotiations process also involved considerable mass mobilisation against the violence and in favour of national and very localised democratic demands. The relatively spontaneous, nation-wide mobilization in the second half of April 1993 following the assassination of Chris Hani proved to be a decisive moment in compelling the hitherto stalled multi-party negotiations to finally agree on a fixed election date, set for exactly one year later.

Chantal Mouffe

I do not wish to suggest that the major contribution that Mandela or the TRC made to South Africa's democratic transition can be reduced to the illusions that I have sought to underline from a passage in one speech, or from the Report of the TRC. But I do believe that they are exemplary of a problematic discursive construction of the transition, of the nature of democracy, and of who "we" are.

These illusions about democratic politics were not South African alone. In the 1990s the assumed "universalism" of a particular model of "democratic politics" became hegemonic globally.  Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed the "End of Ideology". In the immediate context of the 1994 negotiated transition, South Africa was held up as the poster-boy for how things should be done, and a sanitized, commoditized version of what actually happened was scripted, along with a global media-driven canonization of Mandela.

There were always conservative international voices who dissented against the assumption of the "universalization" of liberal democratic values, arguing - as Samuel Huntingdon did, for instance about the inevitable "clash of civilisations" (Huntingdon 2003). For his part, Robert Kaplan wrote:

"…the West's victory in the Cold War…many believed would bring simply freedom and prosperity under the banners of 'democracy' and 'free markets'. But just as after World War I and World War II, our victory has ushered in the next struggle for survival, in which evil wears new masks." (Kaplan 2000, p.xi - my emphasis).

Kaplan appears to locate "evil" particularly in Africa: "Africa may be as relevant to the future character of world politics as the Balkans were a hundred years ago…Then the threat was the collapse of empires and the birth of nations based solely on tribe. Now the threat is more elemental: nature unchecked. Africa's immediate future could be very bad." (Kaplan 2000, p.18 - my emphasis).

Writing from this deeply racist perspective, Kaplan nonetheless provides a pertinent critique of the liberal canonization of the South African democratic transition:

"The abundant coverage of South Africa's impressive attempts at coming to terms with the crimes of apartheid serves to obscure the country's growing problems. There is a sense of fear in such celebratory, backward-looking coverage, as if writing too much about the difficulties in that racially symbolic country would expose the limits of the liberal humanist enterprise worldwide." (Kaplan 2000, p.78)

On the left, there has been, of course, a long tradition of criticism of "liberalism" and particular of its conflation of "freedom" with "free markets"; of liberty with global trade liberalization; and the reduction of rights to those of possessive individuals (including corporations invested with a legal persona) at the expense of collective rights (like the right to self-determination of colonially oppressed people). But much of this left criticism has been vulnerable to the legitimate allegation that it suffered from a democratic deficit itself, that instead of enabling in practice a consolidation and surpassing of liberal democratic values, it encouraged a falling behind these democratic advances. The collapse of the Soviet bloc at this time contributed to both the triumphalism of the Fukuyamas and confusions, denialism, and uncertainty in many quarters of the left.

It is in this context that I have found the work of Chantal Mouffe particularly helpful, and much of the present critique draws on it. At the heart of her writing is an endeavor to defend a pluralist, liberal democratic politics precisely by rescuing it from the illusions of a universalism transcending ideology and beyond conflict. Mouffe critiques the attempts to establish democratic politics purely in the realm of rational discussion and consensus-making, while drawing a veil over the constitutive impact of power. Her work also focuses critically on the role of the constitution of an "us" and a "them" in politics.

"Politics aims at the creation of unity in a context of conflict and diversity; it is always concerned with the creation of an 'us' by the determination of a 'them'. The novelty of democratic politics is not the overcoming of this us/them opposition - which is an impossibility - but the different way in which it is established. The crucial issue is to establish this us/them in a way that is compatible with pluralist democracy." (Mouffe 1998, p.16)

What does this mean practically? In a pluralist democracy it means establishing a minimum framework (a constitution, perhaps) of agreement that transforms erstwhile enemies into legitimate antagonists, but among whom there are still irreconcilable differences, and who will disagree even on the interpretation and implementation of the founding constitutional principles, for instance. This results in what Mouffe describes as a "conflictual consensus". This does not mean that compromises are not possible, indeed they are part and parcel of the political process, but "they are only temporary respites in an ongoing confrontation in which it is impossible to satisfy everybody." (Mouffe 1998, p.16). In other words, democratic politics creates the space for democratic contest and disagreement in contrast to:

"the typical liberal perspective that envisages democracy as a struggle among elites, taking place in a neutral terrain, thereby making adversary forces invisible and reducing politics to an exchange of arguments and the negotiation of compromises." (ibid.)

Mouffe argues that the danger of this model of democracy that seeks to obliterate the adversarial us/them relationship is that, far from actually abolishing antagonism, its effective de-politicisation of public life creates a void that is likely to be filled by all manner of negative phenomena. At the more benign end of the scale there is public disillusion, electoral abstention, and the reduction of politics to the obsessive media coverage of scandals among the palace elite. At the more serious end of the scale there is the likelihood of the eruption of antagonism in the form of intolerant ethnic, xenophobic, religious dogmas rooted in non-negotiable, anti-democratic fundamentalisms.

As we have noted, in SA the aspiration has often been to displace antagonism through the imaginary construct of a "we" that is so all-encompassing there is no longer a "them". The "enemy" we are frequently told is no longer the apartheid system (or monopoly capital, or imperialism), but poverty or inequality, for instance. This is exactly how Trevor Manuel, minister in the presidency for planning, envisages the core task of the National Development Plan (NDP). "The first task of the National Development Plan is to unite all South Africans around a common programme, of all our people around the common goal of fighting poverty and inequality…" (Manuel, 2013)

But what does it mean to declare war on poverty or inequality? It effectively obscures what lies behind, the systemic realities that reproduce poverty and inequality. This, in turn, obscures the question: "What social forces have an objective interest - regardless of subjective sentiment - in the perpetuation of those systemic realities?"

The NDP - constructing a common "we"

The National Development Plan (NDP) was published in 2011 under the title "Vision 2030 - Our future, make it work". Near the beginning of the 484-page document are 12-pages of verse, a "Vision Statement", commissioned from two prominent South African writers. Although it aspires, perhaps, to emulate the language of other vision statements like the Freedom Charter or the Preamble to the 1996 Constitution, the NDP's Vision Statement is quite different in tone and character. It transports us into the nirvana of a future present - "Now in 2030 we live in a country which we have remade…We feel understood/We feel needed/We feel trustful/We feel trusted./We feel accommodative./We feel accommodated", etc. (p.13)

By contrast, the brief Preamble to the Constitution is declarative and purposive: "We, the people of South Africa…through our freely elected representatives, adopt this constitution…so as to - Heal the divisions of the past…Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society…Improve the quality of life…Build a united and democratic society…" Similarly the Freedom Charter is a rousing call to action, filled with imperative "shalls" ("The wealth shall be shared", "The doors of learning and culture shall be opened", "The land shall be shared amongst those who work it", etc.).

In stark contrast the NDP's future-present tense "Vision Statement" is merely descriptive and soothing. It wings us into stasis, into a realm beyond politics, into the end of history. It is the equivalent of a fairy-tale "we lived happily ever after". But even in fairy-tales the "happily ever after" comes at the end of a series of tribulations (wicked witches, unpleasant god-mothers, wolves and kidnappings). The NDP chooses to begin with a demobilising, happy-ever-after in which antagonism and contradiction are reduced merely to plurality, to rainbowism, to an inventory of vocations - "We are traders./We are inventors./We are workers./We create companies./We set up stalls./We are studious./We are gardeners./We feel a call to serve." (p.16)

At times the vision-statement veers dangerously close to corporatist aspirations for the nation-state: "Government begins in the home, grows into the community, expands towards the city, flares toward the province, and engulfs the entire land." (p.18)  More problematically, there is a related, deeply troubling quasi-mystical veneration of "our leaders" - "Our leaders' wisdom is ours, because we sense our wisdom in theirs. They do more than respond to us:/They bring new thoughts and ideas/They share with us what they think/They inspire us, because we then seek to aspire with them…" (p.19)

Lurking beneath this veneration of leaders is the danger of lessons unlearnt from the 20th century - the totalitarian aspirations articulated on both the left and right for this or that Party (or Party leader) to be the unique embodiment and representative of an entire class, or of the people-volk - an organic version of society and the state. Here the people and their leaders are one, breathing together in great harmony. Anyone and everyone outside of the magic circle is the enemy to be destroyed.

I am not imputing Stalinism or fascism to the NDP, or to the authors of the Vision Statement. However, there have been tinges of authoritarianism from some quarters in the attempt to claim (and therefore enforce) universal acceptance of the plan. Fortunately, these tendencies have, for the moment, been curbed with the admission that the NDP is "not written in stone". But am I not over-loading the NDP's Vision Statement with ideological significance? Is it not all just harmless poetry? That might have been the case if this "happily ever after" were not an integral part of the overall problematic macro-politics of the NDP.

The NDP as the basis for a social contract

If the NDP chooses textually to begin at the end with this poetic vision of 2030, it ends textually where it proposes to begin, with a broad-based social contract/compact (the NDP uses the words interchangeably, pp.475-7). In fact this beginning (that is an end) and this end (that is really a beginning) perfectly reflect the problematic circularity in the NDP's political assumptions. A society living in harmony with itself, in which all are trusted by and trustful of each other, is both the intended 2030 outcome and the condition for achieving this outcome, which is where the aspiration to construct a social compact enters.

In setting up its argument in this regard, the NDP first defines social contracts in general:

"a social contract…at the core is an agreement among individual people in society or between the people and their government that outlines the rights and duties of each party while building national solidarity." (p.475)

The status of the conjunction "or" is unclear - are these essentially the same kind of compact, or are they two different kinds of compact? They surely ARE different. However, the NDP shows no hint of an awareness of this difference. But it quickly becomes even more unclear when it begins to elaborate on the kind of social contract/compact it aspires to be. Having told us that social contracts are at core "among individuals" (Version One) and/or "between the people and government" (Version Two) - it then begins to advance itself more or less explicitly as the basis for a third version of a social contract - a stakeholder contract. This third version is what the NDP describes as "a social compact… [in which] all stakeholders buy into a clearly articulated vision" (p.475).

But, as we turn to page 476 we discover that "ALL stakeholders" (Version Three A) are just three stakeholders (Version Three B) - business, labour and government. The NDP is proposing itself, in short, as the basis for a tripartite agreement. As the text makes clear, it is essentially a deal between labour and business mediated by government. Labour agrees "to accept lower wage increases than their productivity gains would dictate" and "in return, business agrees that the resulting increase in profits would not be taken out of the country or consumed in the form of higher executive remuneration or luxuries, but rather reinvested in ways that generate employment as well as growth." (p.476). The role of government is to monitor compliance on the deal and to act as a mediator, and to smooth the way for a continued buy in from labour and business, by lowering the cost of living for workers through "implementing a social wage" and by reducing the cost of doing business for business.

But the unannounced slippage between Versions One and Two, the further slippage between these two and a social contract of "all stakeholders", and then the slippage between "all" and "three" stakeholders" disguises the effective exclusion from this proposed deal of millions of South Africans who are not "government" nor "business" or "labour". The excluded in this tripartite contract would, in the first place, be the 37% of South Africans of working age who are unemployed. This, then, further conceals the virtually impossible task that is being placed on government if it is to fulfil its side of the compact by delivering an expanded social wage (low cost housing, for instance) to employed workers who will then more readily accept economic wage moderation -the backlog in social housing for the millions who are unemployed or under-employed is so extensive, that the majority of formal sector workers are simply in the limbo of the "housing gap market", they do not even qualify for social housing.

Apart from the unemployed, the tripartite stake-holder compact would also effectively exclude a mass of middle strata. But leaving aside the directly excluded, the stake-holder contract notion is, essentially, an elite pact. For who represents "workers", and who represents "business" in signing off on the deal? Is there a singular working class interest? Is there a singular business interest?

We are, of course, treated to a daily media bombardment reminding us that trade unions do not represent all of labour. This is, indeed, the case - due in no small part to the fact that capital always seeks to fragment and stratify the working class. Historically, labour was racially stratified in SA, more recently there has been a large-scale process of casualization and labour-brokering, fragmenting labour and weakening the power and representivity of trade unions, notwithstanding important statutory gains.

But what about "business"? Is there a univocal policy package that represents "business" interests? Do all sectors of capital share the same macro-economic policy agenda, for instance? Or is what passes for the "business" macro-economic agenda not actually the agenda of financialised, multi-national monopoly capital? From a progressive perspective, do we want to "unite" all of business behind a single "voice" in order to secure a tripartite social compact among elites? Or do we want to disarticulate the different and conflicting interests of different sectors and strata of capital, the better to be able to drive a patriotic growth and development agenda?

Even more problematically, the proposal for a durable, long-term tripartite stake-holder South African social contract grievously misunderstands both our national reality and the major shifts in the way capital now operates globally. In a different location (post-World War II, western Europe, say), in a different phase of capitalism (1945 to the early 1970s) this kind of national pact had some traction. This was, precisely, the heyday of European social democracy. But in SA, in the early 1990s, the new democratic state did not find in South African monopoly capital a willing partner committed to national reconstruction and development out of war-time ruin. Instead, a relatively robust South African monopoly capital sector (SASOL, Anglo American, SA Breweries, for instance) had in the last decade of apartheid suffered some loss of profits owing to sanctions and the costs of apartheid-era wars - but unlike their Western European counterparts in 1945, their factories and mines had not been in the direct theatre of war. South African monopoly capital saw the democratic breakthrough not as an opportunity to re-build a shattered national economy, but rather as an opportunity to globalise, to financialise, to seek foreign listings - in short, to disinvest. According to Ashman et al 2011, the equivalent of some 20-25 percent of GDP was disinvested out of the South African economy between 1994 and 2011. Much of this disinvestment was illegal mis-invoicing, transfer pricing. (Ashman et al, pp.7-25)  

The 1994/6 negotiated compacts and the present

At the heart of the NDP's confusion here (and it is perhaps a central confusion) is the mistaken assumption that the "social contract(s)" (to use the term provisionally) of 1994/6 can be replicated now to address our persisting socio-economic crises of unemployment, poverty and inequality. The NDP is arguably correct to observe that: "The settlement that was produced through the negotiations in the 1990s and the Constitution…were [sic] effectively national compacts." (p.475)(Note, in passing, the discordance between the singular noun "settlement", which is the subject of the sentence, and the plural verb "were" - a symptom perhaps of the confusion as to whether Versions 1 and 2 of a social compact are the same thing, or two different things?)

The elections of 1994 might be seen as an implicit Version One compact - an overwhelming majority of individual adult South Africans, black and white, participating in a one-person one-vote election constituted themselves as a "people", as a new non-racial "we" - regardless of how they/we actually voted. And the 1996 adoption of the Constitution through an elected Constituent Assembly (the product of 1994) might be seen as a Version Two social compact, an agreement on the rights and obligations of government and the newly constituted we-the-people, the South African citizenry.

But we need to understand the very different character of a democratic, constitutional settlement and a plan of action to overcome the crises of unemployment, poverty and inequality embedded in a reproduced legacy of socio-economic under-development. In the early 1990s, the balance of forces in SA (and internationally) was propitious for fostering a very broad-based national South African consensus on a non-racial constitutional democracy. The objective conditions for replicating the SAME broad-based (or even tripartite stake-holder) national consensus to address our systemic crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequality do not exist.

It is a point illustrated neatly if anecdotally in a recent exchange between the minister of mineral resources Susan Shabangu and the CEO of Gold Fields, Nick Holland. In her address to a mining conference in Perth, Australia, Shabangu invoked the spirit of the NDP's proposed social contract. She called on mining houses investing in SA to "moderate the rates of return" they sought. She based her call on an appeal to shared moral values: "Investors must realise they have a responsibility to the country and cannot work to a bottom line that has no heart or soul at all. They have to understand there are various socio-economic needs of the various partners. If investment will not improve the quality of lives - and recognise that workers need to live decent lives - it will not be able to bring stability to SA." Nick Holland's response was brutally frank: "Investors are not emotional about where they invest. If the rate of return they require is not there, they will not invest in that country." ("Shabangu, Gold Fields CEO clash over mine returns", Business Day, August 29, 2013)

The attempt to reduce the protagonists of socio-economic transformation in SA to a bland, conflict-free "we", as in the NDP's Vision Statement, or to three "stake-holder" partners inevitably runs into a reality check and a wall of rejection. Chantal Mouffe has captured this precisely when she writes critically of the attempt to reduce the realm of politics to the attempt always to "create the conditions for a 'rational' consensus":

"To envisage politics as a rational process of negotiation among individuals is to obliterate the whole dimension of power and antagonism - what I call 'the political'…To negate the political does not make it disappear, it only leads to bewilderment in the face of its manifestations and to impotence in dealing with them.", (Mouffe 2005, p.140)

The compact on a constitutional democracy and a plan of action to address socio-economic injustices are not the same thing. The latter will require the construction of a different patriotic bloc of forces, a different "we". This was a point implicitly appreciated (or rather feared) by Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert when, writing in 1992 from a typical elite-pacting liberal perspective, he warned "one of the most daunting challenges facing [a future government] is to protect the new political space created by negotiations from being used to contest the historical imbalances that precipitated negotiation in the first place." (Van Zyl Slabbert 1992, p.90)

But from a progressive perspective the whole point of the "new political space" was (and is) to use the democratic power of majority-rule to address the (largely socio-economic) "imbalances". Unless these "imbalances" are addressed, it is the "new political space" itself, the constitutional social contract that will be (and is being) eroded. It is not a question now (as some ANC members have suggested) of abandoning the constitutional social compact - but rather of constituting within that broader compact a new popular bloc, a majoritarian but pluralistic bloc of progressive, patriotic forces, including, for instance, productive capital in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors, to drive systemic social and economic transformation.

This is a strategic agenda that should be conducted within the framework of the current constitutional dispensation. But it will necessarily disrupt the 1994/96 rainbow "we". This agenda will need to oppose (not as the "enemy", not as "outside" constitutionality) a powerful "opposition" within our constitutional dispensation. This is the still hegemonic neo-liberal, globalised sector within and beyond South Africa (as epitomised by the pithy retort of Gold Field's Nick Holland) and the related, Van Zyl Slabbert-type political agenda, seeking to reduce democratic politics to supposedly universally-accepted "rules of the game", "good governance" and "efficiency" - but not substantive transformation.

Works cited

Ashman, Susan, Ben Fine, Susan Newman, 2011, "Amnesty International? The nature, scale and impact of capital flight from South Africa", Journal of Southern African Studies, vol.37, no.1, March 2011, pp.7-25)

Cronin, Jeremy, 1999. "A luta dis-continua? The TRC Final Report and the nation building project", University of Witwatersrand, History Workshop

Fukuyama, Francis, 1992, The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, NY

Huntington, Samuel P, 1993, "The clash of civilisations?", Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993.

Kaplan, Robert D, 2000, The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the dreams of the post Cold War,

Manuel, Trevor, 2013, "12 Months on: Marikana and its meaning for the National Development Plan", Ruth First Memorial Lecture, University of the Witwatersrand, www.info.gov.za/speech/

Mouffe, Chantal, 1998. "The radical centre. A politics without adversary", Soundings, Issue 9, summer 1998, pp.11-23

Mouffe, Chantal, 1999. "Deliberative democracy or agonistic pluralism", Social Research, vol.66, no.3, pp.745-759

Mouffe, Chantal, 2005. The Return of the Political. Verso, London-NY

National Planning Commission, 2011 - National Development Plan - Vision 2030

Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 1998. Final Report (references are to volume, chapter & paragraph)

Van Zyl Slabbert, Frederik, 1992. The Quest for Democracy. South Africa in Transition, Penguin, Jbg.


1. The textual engagement with the TRC Final Report in this section is largely drawn from a more extensive critique in Cronin 1999