Reconsidering the Elite Transition Model.

Theorists such as Patrick Bond and Dale McKinley have identified the transition from apartheid to non-racial democracy in South Africa as an “elite transition” (Bond’s words). That is, power was handed over from one elite to another elite without reference to the broad mass of the people. Bond and McKinley, and to a great extent others who share their Trotskyite politics and funding (such as Dennis Brutus and Ashwin Desai), feel that this makes the whole process tainted, and that it needs to be started essentially from scratch. To put it bluntly, they believe that the liberation of South Africa was a mistake, because it was done wrongly, and by the wrong people.

There is undeniably a degree of truth to this. Before 1990, South Africa was ruled by a political elite who drew their authority from the white minority, and an economic elite who composed the great bourgeoisie class of the white minority. After 1994, South Africa was ruled by a political elite who drew their authority from the black majority, and an economic elite who composed the great bourgeoisie class, and which was predominantly drawn from the white minority, though with a small proportion of blacks among them. Presented like this, it does not seem a very great change.

On the other hand, it is difficult to think of a change of government which does not, by these standards, entail an elite transition. France in 1792? Russia in 1917? China in 1949? Cambodia in 1975? Nicaragua in 1979? All cases where an elite collapsed, was thrown out, or surrendered, and handed power to another elite. Seen in this light, South Africa’s “elite transition” becomes simply the norm for either revolution or evolution. It is thus slightly odd that Bond, McKinley and their followers are so strongly opposed to it. After all, few would claim that those transitions led to no real changes in their societies!

However, implicit in the “elite transition” model is another claim; that there was an alternative to the elite transition. Hence, in South Africa between 1989 and 1994, it would have been possible to have a transition which was not elite; a transition to a different kind of society. Bond and McKinley believe, broadly, in socialism and indeed in communism, so presumably they believe that this objective could have been attained at this time, and that this was obvious to see at the time. The contention of the “elite transition” model is that the forces seeking to overthrow the apartheid state deliberately rejected this possibility and betrayed the people of South Africa in order to hold power in their own hands — or else, perhaps (this is strongly suggested by Bond) to become willing servants of a nefarious capitalist class.

This is a powerful accusation. It lies at the root of the attacks on the post-apartheid South African governments made by the international Left. It forms a basis for a broad-based attack on the ANC which is widely endorsed by the capitalist oligarchy in South Africa, whose media devote a good deal of time to accusing the ANC of corruption and of wallowing in wealth while others starve. (Naturally this only applies to ANC members, predominantly black ones; the business press devotes little time to pointing out the enormous wealth of white capitalists as opposed to the unemployed or underemployed black majority.) Hence we are in danger of forgetting that the accusation, upon which so much is based, still deserves to be studied. Is it altogether true?

It is probably shallow and simplistic to point out that refusal to participate in the transition was not a credible political option. If the ANC had not returned when it was unbanned, the UDF would probably not have been able to sustain itself alone. Other, more opportunistic parties would have taken the opportunity to put themselves forward as potential negotiating partners for the apartheid state, and judging by subsequent events they would have been corrupt and subservient partners.

Meanwhile, if the ANC had returned but had refused to negotiate, it would have been in a similarly difficult position. The terms of return of the leadership were confusing at first; the apartheid secret police and military wanted to arrest a number of the leaders and their position had to be protected through negotiations. Without this, the ANC would have faced the humiliation of not being able to protect its members. This happened anyway with the Operation Vula disaster, but that was at least a manageable disaster, for by then the ANC was in a stronger position than at the start of the process. While it could not protect its members, it could at least demand that they be released, point out that it was already negotiating, and thus turn the debate around from one concerning the ANC’s weakness into one concerning the apartheid state’s brutality.

So it had to negotiate. Having to negotiate, it had to give up the armed struggle. There was no moral or political basis in pursuing the armed struggle, which was purely a propaganda activity, in parallel with the political struggle. The armed struggle contributed nothing except publicity stunts. It was not going to overthrow the state. However, while it existed it was a standing challenge to the ANC’s bona fides as a negotiating partner. (Meanwhile the Inkatha movement’s armed struggle was not a problem for it, since it was not involved in the negotiations, and the PAC’s armed struggle was not a problem for it since it was secretly in alliance with the apartheid government.)

But in that case, how could the ANC’s eventual decision to negotiate a democratic election be seen as a betrayal of the people?

The issue is, surely, the terms under which the decision took place. The problem which people like Bond raise, and which is echoed by people like John Pilger and Naomi Klein, is that the ANC failed to demand that South Africa be a socialist state. It failed to insist that before the elections happened, the whites should be stripped of their wealth and the capitalists be deprived of the commanding heights of the economy. There are other, trivial, complaints made by others, but this is the gist of the problem. Is this a realistic criticism? Was this a possible accomplishment in the negotiations in mid-1993 which followed the murder of Chris Hani?

The ANC commanded the support of a large membership. However, this membership was not in itself committed to socialism, nor to revolutionary struggle. It was respectful of the Communist Party because the Communist Party had fought for liberation during the darkest days of apartheid, and because the apartheid state hated the Communist Party. Nevertheless, the ANC’s membership was, if anything, doubtful about socialism; it was dominated by petit-bourgeois and tribal-traditionalist attitudes, and saturated with fundamentalist Christianity. Adopting vigorous anti-capitalist measures would have weakened its support base — no doubt not crucially in itself, but significantly.

On the other side, however, the NP had enormous advantages over the ANC. It had armed forces which the ANC did not possess. It had powerful forces to its right which were in hidden alliance with it — the “Freedom Alliance” — and which it could use as bargaining-chips. It also enjoyed the support of the masters of the South African economy. Its electoral support-base was substantial; it enjoyed majority support among whites, and could plausibly hope for majority support among indians and coloureds (as the puppet parties which it had set up in those communities disintegrated) and possibly hope for some african support, particularly in homeland bureaucracies. Most importantly, perhaps, it commanded the support of the international community. The purported distaste for the apartheid regime expressed by Western governments through nominal sanctions had vanished; De Klerk was a welcomed guest everywhere, and sanctions had been lifted even though apartheid remained in force.

It might be asked why De Klerk had engaged in negotiations at all. The reason was that in 1988-9 South Africa was in a crisis which plainly stemmed from the conflict between government and ANC. The government had been growing weaker and the ANC stronger, and it seemed sensible to begin negotiations while he could still negotiate from a position of strength.

This had not greatly changed by 1993; the economy was weak and weakening. Large parts of the country were in a chaotic condition, largely because of government homeland and internal destabilization policies. The simple act of lifting the ban on organisations and negotiating with them (albeit in bad faith) had not actually solved any problems. De Klerk, rightly, had no faith in the support of his new friends in the West. Restoring the ban on the ANC and rejecting the ideal of democracy would merely return the country to the crisis conditions of five years earlier — or possibly even worse conditions. Hence De Klerk and the NP could see advantages in making a further, even more radical change — to begin negotiations in (relatively) good faith about the introduction of democracy.

This, however, was a genuinely drastic issue. It entailed the likelihood that the NP would lose political power and the ANC gain it. This was completely anathema to two generations of whites who had been taught that the ANC were absolute evil, that africans broke everything they touched, and that white leadership was essential for South African progress. It was also perceived as the final betrayal of the military and police forces who had fought bloodily for three decades to prevent anything like this from happening in South Africa. The NP had split in 1983 over the comparatively trivial issue of granting a token vote to the coloured and indian minorities; what would happen if the real vote were granted to the black majority? De Klerk was not an absolute dictator; he had to persuade his party and his constituency, and all needed reassurance. They also needed to be panicked into the notion that if this were not done, something worse would be likely to follow.

If they were not panicked, De Klerk might be overthrown, in which case South Africa would probably fall into the hands of right-wing politicians and generals who were already active in the “Freedom Front”. These were the unimaginative “securocrats” who had overseen Botha’s State of Emergency with mass detention, political murder, and the mechanical “hearts and minds” tactics of the U.S. model of National Security State. It was only five years earlier that they had lost power, and they wanted it back.

What if the ANC/SACP/COSATU had presented the NP with a non-negotiable demand that the draft Constitution for South Africa had to have socialism in its Bill of Rights, that the NP had to assist in nationalising all the major industries and companies and expropriating all the largest private properties in the country before an election could be held, in order to redistribute this wealth to the african majority? The answer is very simple; the NP would have rejected this and the ANC could have done nothing to press its demand. All that the ANC could do would have been feeble public protests (along the lines of the trivial but much-publicised protests after Chris Hani’s murder) and, perhaps, have blocked the holding of elections.

In this case, however, the ANC would certainly have begun losing significant support. While many black South Africans were not averse to socialism, they would certainly have been angry that this socialist mirage was being used to keep them from the franchise. As the ANC’s support began to drift away, the Inkatha movement, overtly anti-socialist and being used as a death-squad by the apartheid state, would probably have been the chief beneficiary.

The process would then have been a stalemated race between several factors. On one hand, De Klerk’s support-base would have waned as he proved unable to even deliver the potential nightmare of a democratic election. On the other hand, the pro-socialist camp within the ANC would have lost support as it intransigently refused to accept democracy. Meanwhile, anti-ANC forces in the wider community would be gaining strength, and anti-De Klerk forces in the white community would also be gaining strength. In the mean time, the South African economy was starting to crumble as the cost of debt servicing soared. (The ANC’s endorsement of revolutionary socialism would certainly have sent capital flying abroad and the rand and the stock exchange would have tumbled, exaggerating the problems.)

The most likely consequence of this would have been, ultimately, that the white right would have cut the Gordian knot and got rid of De Klerk, seeing him as the main obstacle to progress, and taken a harder line with the ANC; after which, the pro-socialist camp within the ANC would probably have been forced out and a more right-wing element brought in. Some time in the mid-1990s the two right-wing forces would have negotiated a democratic settlement.

However, this would have come to pass several years after it did in reality, and in conditions considerably less favourable for the ANC than they were in 1994. In all probability the ANC would have won the election with a less than decisive majority which would have weakened its position to bring about post-election change. The whole mood of the country would have been soured. And, of course, ten thousand or so more people would have died in the Inkatha bloodbath, and the economy would have been appallingly weak. It’s an odious prospect which this anticipates, but a realistic one.

The alternative — a negotiation to socialism — could only have been possible if the ANC had been in a strong position in 1993. Instead, it was in a weak position. The whole transition was a kind of confidence trick in which the ANC had to coax the apartheid state into surrendering. It worked very well.


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