02 July 2010

The National Question Revisited

The National Question Revisited

Ngoako Ramatlhodi, ANC Today, Johannesburg, 2 July 2010

Those who taught us always counselled that the national question must at all times remain a permanent agenda item of the revolution. This is so, because a proper understanding of relations between groupings, tribes and nationalities will enable a revolutionary movement to make informed choices in changing and at times adjusting such relationships in order to build a united society.

In this context, the most important first step is to acknowledge the existence of the different groupings as postulated, and to accept the fact that they relate to one another through a complex set of unequal relationships. It is this unequal set of relationships that must preoccupy the national question so that we can study and monitor the changes manifesting on a continuous basis. Some changes are subtle and difficult to detect whereas others are spectacular and announce their presence in dramatic fashion.

Some would argue that now that apartheid is behind us why don't we forget the past and focus on the things that unite us. The argument goes further to say that an acknowledgement of the different groupings, as postulated, is backward step detracting from our effort at building a single South African nation. This argument misses the point in that it seeks to ignore the actual existence of various national groups in South Africa. They do exist and the study of relations between them is the subject of the national question. These relations are in a state of constant change.

In society such change is driven by social forces who must understand the nature and content of that change. In this context, it is important to understand that, under apartheid the white minority occupied a dominant position in all spheres of national life in relation to the black majority. In order to retain power it developed and applied a system of divide and rule in order to reinforce such divisions.

Firstly, it discriminated against black people as a whole. In other words black people in general, occupied an inferior position in relation to all whites. Secondly, it gave Indians blacks and Coloureds blacks a slightly favourable position in relation to Africans blacks, without making them equal to whites. Thirdly, it divided Africans blacks into tribes and assigned them to different bantustans.

This was the political arrangement we inherited in 1994. At an ideological level the apartheid regime left nothing to chance in fostering and cultivating the virtues of our differences under the god given right of whites to dominate and rule over the rest. There is little doubt that the strategy did have an impact and reinforced elements of tribal and regional consciousness amongst blacks, whilst reinforcing white national consciousness under Afrikaner domination.

The situation one paints out must be understood as a reflection, in general terms, of economic relations amongst various groupings under apartheid. The slight difference is that, at the economic level, imperial International capital was never fully supplanted by Afrikaner capital. In fact they continued to thrive side by side on the back of the super exploitation of black people. Events of 1994 altered the political relations between the races by introducing non-racialism as a fundamental basis of our constitutional dispensation. Political power was, thus, transferred to blacks through democratic elections, given their absolute majority. For the first time, blacks had power which they could use to change the relations between themselves and whites, and also to change relations amongst themselves.

Even though the ANC had won the first democratic elections with decisive majority, it opted for a government of national unity in order to ensure a full buy in by all, in particular by Afrikaners who were suffering the trauma of loosing political power. The creation of a government of national unity was a masterful application of the principles underlining the national question, in that it achieved both affirmation and accommodation. Here one is referring to affirmation of the black people and the accommodation of the former oppressors, the whites.

In contrast to compromises made at the Convention for Democratic South Africa (CODESA), which were a result of relative equal balance of forces at the time, the government of national unity was a unilateral and voluntary initiative by the victorious forces of liberation. A point has to be made that a proper application of the principles of the national question expresses itself in a general movement towards bringing different people together on the basis of true equality, a movement away from keeping them apart and unequal.

In filling up its leadership bodies, the ANC has always been conscious of the need to affirm minorities. In the past, we also applied the same principles when we compiled our lists for elections to government bodies at all levels. The post-Polokwane deviation of voting for slates, that is, where there are two groups contesting each other in ANC conferences, instead of individual members standing as candidates, undermines the correct application of the principles of the national question. This tendency opens the floodgates wide open, for opportunism to thrive within the movement. It has become difficult if not utterly impossible to apply our own principles of selecting leadership as encapsulated in the document, 'Through the Eye of the Needle'.

In electing leadership bodies, our political culture has always been to look at the political tasks to be carried out at any given historic moment. Having done that, we would proceed to elect suitable individual comrades to the collective leadership bodies, with a mandate to implement the agreed programme. The problem with the institutionalisation of the slate tendency is that, it will not only undermine the unity and cohesion of the movement, but also destabilize national unity.

Once a faction captures the levers of power as a faction, it will run affairs of the movement and affairs of the state as a faction. The reason for this is that in its behaviour a political entity reflects its own internal characteristics to the external environment it interacts with. As a rule, factions turn to delegitimise different opinions and criminalizes even lawful challenges allowed under the rules of engagement. This applies equally to victorious and loosing factions. In such a situation political principles and national interests give way to herd mentality and behaviour at our own collective peril.

Only true democrats, stand a reasonable chance of successfully applying principles of the national question correctly, in that they allow the majority to prevail without punishing minorities for being minorities. Equally, those who have lost elections would not engage in destructive behaviour outside accepted rules of engagement. In this context, it is important to understand that in South Africa, blacks are a universal majority, who take their different shades according to locality whilst at the same time, forming different strings of one whole black nation.

In an area predominantly occupied by black-coloureds, such as the Western Cape, it is important to reflect this majority in both leadership bodies of the movement and the government. It would be incorrect for African blacks to claim leadership of such a locality without the active support of the local coloured blacks. In fact, the correct thing to do is to allow these minority majorities to hold sway in their own localities. Recent experiments to the contrary have proven disastrous to the ANC. The correct application of the principles of the national question demands of individual cadres to put national interests above any other interest including their own.

The Western Cape situation just described, easily reproduces itself in many wards in the country. A close scrutiny of ward populations would show that there are many wards which are predominantly white. Since the ANC branch is ward based, the leadership bodies of the branch must reflect the will of the majority members in that ward. In this context, the revolutionary task of the ANC branch is to persuade residents in their locality of the correctness of our policies with the view of winning them over into membership. Where whites constitute, the majority membership of the branch, this should reflect in its leadership bodies. Sometimes it is necessary to apply this principle, even where such majorities are minorities in the branch or in the ward. A typical example is a traditional coloured ward, which incorporates new African settlements.

This brings us to the process of selection of candidates for local government. In line with the main argument in this article, it is being suggested that the practice of testing the acceptability of ANC candidates with communities where they are to stand as ward candidates, be restored. In many ways this would strengthen the people's participation by involving them in the pre election selection processes. This practice was common, particularly in the early days. The reason why it is being raised sharply is that it is gradually being eroded. In this regard, the ANC election team has taken a decision to involve the NEC and hopefully the whole movement, in a debate as to how we can ensure public participation in the selection process, without watering down the quality of revolutionary commitment to the election manifesto of the movement.

One has taken a considerable amount of time on the politics of the national question. This is partly because proper and correct understanding of the comforts and discomforts brought about by changes in relations between different racial groups enables radical reform to occur in a unifying rather than a divisive manner. National unity is an important confidence building measure which could assist as the country confronts the inevitable changes that must take place in the more intricate economic fundamentals.

As the foundation on which the society is anchored, the economy poses the most difficult challenge to the national democratic revolution. Sadly, sixteen years after independence, we have failed to democratise the apartheid economy, with the result that today South Africa is said to be the most unequal society in the world. In this regard, whites have become wealthier and blacks have become poorer with African blacks the worst of in the packing order, as a general trend.

This situation has to be changed urgently as it poses the most serious threat to our national security and stability. The ANC must wake up to its responsibilities before it is too late. We cannot resolve the national question outside the economic reforms necessary to make our people equals at an economic level. Only when there is economic parity among all national groups, can we begin to talk about a maturing national democratic revolution. We have to implement the policy of a broad based affirmative action on the same scale and with the same determination displayed in preparing for the 2010 Soccer World Cup. In this regard, failure is not an option as the country will increasingly slide into instability and chaos.

This process must be led by a strong developmental state, because the necessary revolutionary changes can only be successfully implemented by a strong government with enough legal authority to effect such changes. The envisaged, and in fact, unavoidable radical changes require more government and not less government in public affairs. That government has to assume an activist posture in its programmes and activities. In particular, the government must be directly involved in implementing radical economic reforms.

In this context history will show that the biggest error in the first years of our democracy was to leave the economy to the market forces, laced with the cancer of apartheid inequalities. In doing this the country took comfort in the almost desperate national illusion that the cancer of apartheid ravaging the market forces would somehow go away on its own. Yet, we all know that for cancer to be healed it has to be surgically removed. The country, now need a good surgeon in the form of a strong government.
To carry out a successful operation the government must initiate and implement a cluster of initiatives, to enable the process. The following are but examples of available possibilities. We have to increase spending on infrastructure in rural and poor urban areas, in order to push back unemployment as well as to provide the necessary conditions for economic development. As part of this cluster of initiatives we have to accelerate efforts to build an efficient and accountable civil service particularly at local government level. The creation of a single public service for all spheres of government is a pre-requisite, in this regard.

Parastatals provide government with immediate and real opportunities to create an alternative economy to the existing apartheid economy. As a rule they have to be strengthened as the frontline instruments of economic reform and change. Therefore, we have to actively search for new openings in the economy where suitable and new parastatals could be created. In order to play this role successfully they must remain public entities both in form and content and not semi-private entities as the current trend seem to suggest. In this regard, what is required is more direct government control, which means less or no power to the current boards. In this form, parastatals would be more amenable to implementing government policy faster and more efficiently. It must be said that, this far, the role of parastatals as instruments of economic development and empowerment of black people, has been awfully inadequate.

Afrikaners, post-1948 seem to have understood this better than the ANC, post-1994. In this context, it is imperative that the leadership bodies of these parastatals must fully reflect the general demographics of the population with African blacks, firmly at the levers of control. So constituted, these entities are likely to be more sensitive to their role as the locomotive for the rapid promotion of a broad based black economic empowerment. In this context, the current situation where big business receives special favours from parastatals is not sustainable, in that it prejudices small and emerging business.

For instance, access to rail transport, freight and port is totally out of line with national policy. Emerging small scale miners export their produce with great difficulties unless they subordinate themselves to big multi nationals some of whom own exclusive rights to our ports. Similarly, tariffs charged by public entities seem to be stacked in favour of big players in the economy. This has to change.

Another key frontier is land reform. We must urgently revisit the principle of willing seller, willing buyer in order to release more land for massive agrarian reform. Vast state land must also be a target of land reform. In this regard beneficiaries of land reform should be given the necessary training and mentorship. The state should assist in buying and selling the produce from agricultural activities. Parallel to the cultivation of individual farmers, we should create a strong cooperative movement.

All these measures must be complemented by free and compulsory education, relevant to the developmental needs of our country. The country has no choice but to invest in the future. To make all these things possible a review of the legal regime is necessary. Where the need arises, amendments of existing legislation and the creation of the new legislation may be necessary. In this context, the constitution itself might have to be amended.

  • Ngoako Ramatlhodi is an ANC NEC member