What happened to South Africa’s transformation?

Eric Louw, University of Queensland

William Gumede Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, London, Zed Books, 2007 (368 pp). ISBN 9-78184277-848-7 (paperback) RRP $51.00.

Fourteen years ago—in April 1994—Nelson Mandela, as leader of the African National Congress (ANC), became South Africa’s first black president. Along with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mandela’s globally televised inauguration was widely hailed as a defining moment of the 20th century. Mandela’s accession to power was portrayed as a ‘political miracle’ and a symbol of black-white reconciliation by a global media that uniformly disseminated the same ‘good news story’ encoding joy and optimism about South Africa’s future.

After fourteen years it seems fair to ask—has the ANC delivered a transformation to match the optimism of 1994? And what have been the main features of South Africa’s transformation since? For anyone interested in trying to answer these questions, William Gumede’s Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC is a good place to start. Gumede describes how the ANC has solidly entrenched itself in power, has radically reconfigured South Africa’s political landscape, and has itself been dramatically transformed in the process. Effectively, he examines how the ANC was changed from a Marxist-aligned liberation movement advocating socialism and nationalisation, to a political party that now drives a liberal-capitalist agenda geared to producing a ‘black bourgeoisie’ through the policy of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).

So what have been the main features of the intertwined transformations of the ANC and the country they rule?

Gumede correctly traces the origins of the struggles for the soul of the ANC back to the early 1990s (that is, before the ANC came to power). During 1991–92 western governments, western think-tanks, the World Bank, and a range of business leaders put enormous energy into wooing Mandela and other ANC leaders with junkets and workshops where they were fed a steady diet of neoliberal economics. In addition, white South African businessmen formed the Brenthurst group that successfully wooed and co-opted key members of the ANC’s leadership, including Mandela. A key moment came in 1992, when left-wing delegates at Davos persuaded Mandela that socialism was incompatible with globalisation and that he needed to rethink his position on nationalising South Africa’s economy. By the end of 1992 Mandela and Mbeki had been sold the neoliberal agenda. Thereafter they set to work realigning the ANC away from socialism, so as to bring it into line with the Washington Consensus. Thus an internal struggle for the soul of the ANC was set in motion. Within this struggle, Mbeki became the key organiser of the ANC centre-right factions.

In the early 1990s the ANC incorporated people with a huge diversity of political positions.

Gumede does a great job of telling us the story of the personalities involved in the ANC’s internal struggles. He is, after all, a highly skilled journalist who has worked for the Sowetan and the Financial Mail, and who has interviewed all these people. The book reflects his thorough knowledge of all the key movers and shakers inside the Tripartite Alliance (the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)) and of the battles between them over access to influence and power. But where Gumede falls short is in examining the nature of the ideological battles. By focusing so intently on personalities, Gumede loses sight of the ideas they represent.

Hence, Gumede seeks to explain the ANC’s internal struggles by breaking the 1990s ANC into four factions—the returned exiles; the elders; the military wing; and the internal wing (comprised of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and COSATU). All of us who were involved in the 1990s ANC would recognise these four factions as real enough. But the problem is, by focusing on these factions (and the personalities involved in them) what get glossed over are the profound ideological struggles within the ANC (which saw an alliance of Africanists and social democrats emerge victorious). In the early 1990s the ANC incorporated people with a huge diversity of political positions. The elders, exiles, and military wing all included both Africanists (black nationalists), communists, and social democrats. The exiles brought home with them (from other places in Africa) 1960s ‘Uhuru’ African nationalism infused with Black Consciousness thinking (which the 1970s wave of exiles had learned from Steve Biko); and from Eastern Europe they brought Stalinism. The internally-based COSATU was dominated by communists and socialists, while the internally-based UDF included Africanists, communists, New Leftists, social democrats, and even some liberals (Seekings 2000). Both the UDF and COSATU advocated non-racialism as a core vision for a post-apartheid South Africa.

In the early 1990s the battle for the soul of the ANC came down to who would be Mandela’s deputy president. There were three contenders—Thabo Mbeki, the (centrist) social democrat returned-exile; Chris Hani, the far-left communist leader of the military wing; or Cyril Ramaphosa, the COSATU trade unionist who represented the internal (COSATU and UDF) constituency. Although Ramaphosa’s personal political views differed little from Mbeki’s centrist-position, Ramaphosa came to be associated with the ANC-left (a constituency with COSATU at its heart), while Mbeki came to be associated with the ANC-right (a constituency with the Africanists at its heart). After Hani’s assassination in 1993, it came down to Mbeki or Ramaphosa. Local and foreign capitalists, western governments and the white South African government all preferred the suave diplomatic Mbeki. But in the early 1990s the left was dominant within the ANC, and at the 1991 ANC conference the Mbeki/Zuma centrist grouping was defeated. And so it was that Ramaphosa, not Mbeki, led the ANC to the constitutional negotiations. But Mbeki learned from this defeat, and began working on his come-back by building new alliances. Effectively, Mbeki the social democrat learned to play the Africanist card, and built alliances with three important populist politicians—the ANC Youth League’s Peter Mokaba, famed for his ‘Kill the Boer, Kill the farmer’ chant at a 1993 rally; Winnie Mandela, whose power-base straddled the ANC Women’s League and SANCO (the civics organisation); and Bantu Holomisa. Holomisa, who had served the apartheid regime as both a general and as the leader of a black homeland before switching sides to the ANC in 1990, and who brought with him a large Xhosa constituency, which guaranteed the ANC electoral dominance in the Eastern Cape province. Mbeki outmanoeuvred Ramaphosa so that when the time came to select a deputy president only Mandela supported Ramaphosa. Having been defeated by Mbeki, Ramaphosa withdrew from politics to become one of many ANC politicians to switch to business. In his new role of business mogul, Ramaphosa has become one of the country’s wealthiest men and a powerful advocate of BEE.

Under Mbeki the rules of South African politics have been rewritten.

Having secured the number two spot, Mbeki turned the deputy president’s office into South Africa’s real centre of political power. Effectively, Mbeki became de facto president during Mandela’s term of office. This occurred because Mandela’s great strength was his celebrity profile which was an enormous asset for the ANC both externally and internally. So, while Mandela’s energies were focussed on using his media profile to calm (internal) white fears, and to persuade foreigners they should invest their capital into the South African ‘miracle’ transformation, Mbeki energies were focussed on the mechanics of shifting the ANC from a liberation movement into a political party and of deploying ANC cadres into the machinery of governance. From the deputy president’s office Mbeki learned to control the levers of state power and to establish his supremacy within the ANC. His trusted ally and right hand man was Jacob Zuma. Mbeki and Zuma made a good team—Mbeki serving as the intellectual and strategist, while Zuma was the ‘fixer’.

Once Mbeki formally became president in 1999 when Mandela retired, the concentration of power within the presidency was accelerated. Mbeki has effectively operated as a political manager—that is, he has run the country much as a CEO would run a business. And he pays careful attention to the rise of dissidents (and potential dissidents) within the ANC, SACP and COSATU. At heart, Mbeki’s style has involved using patronage to buy off dissidents. Anyone seen to be raising his/her voice in opposition to preferred Mbeki policies is bought off by being offered a plum position. Those rejecting the offer of patronage are dealt with brutally—usually having their careers destroyed through smear campaigns. In this regard, Mbeki has been especially harsh with leftist critics. He has also demonstrated a willingness to destroy those who were previously his allies. Examples have been Winnie Mandela and Bantu Holomisa. However, interestingly his attempts to destroy Zuma have been unsuccessful—presumably because Zuma, as Mbeki’s former ‘fixer’, understands Mbeki’s techniques too well.

So what have been the effects of Mbeki’s governance? Firstly, he has created a large presidency, staffed with some very talented (and ambitious) people, where political power has been centralised. Secondly, parliament has been reduced to a mere rubber stamp seemingly staffed by yes men and yes women. Thirdly, he empowered the Africanists. Fourthly, he has alienated the ANC-left and many of those in the ANC’s grassroots structures, who do not feel they are being consulted. This has precisely created a gap for the rise of a populist politician like Zuma to present himself as a ‘man of the people’ who will challenge an aloof and distant president who no longer listens and who has not delivered on its promises to transform their lives.

Mbeki regards his policies as progressive and pragmatic.

Under Mbeki—as both deputy president and president—the rules of South African politics have been rewritten. The face of politics has been transformed into what has been called a one party dominant democracy (Giliomee & Simkins 1999). But what has not been transformed is the economic model planted into South Africa by the British at the turn of the 20th century, so what remains in place is an economy configured around the availability of large amounts of cheap black labour. This is significant because, as a liberation movement, the ANC’s agenda was to challenge this cheap-labour capitalism. Further, the ANC was elected to power in 1994 by promising that it would create better lives for its black constituency through what was called the RDP, a reconstruction and development program geared to transforming the economy (African National Congress 1994). This has patently not come to pass. In fact, between 1994 and 2003 the South African economy shed 540 thousand unskilled and low-skilled jobs. Not only has black unemployment actually grown under an ANC government, but the disparities in wealth between the rich and the poor have become much more extreme than they were under apartheid. To its credit, the ANC did extend electricity and water services into many black areas that were not previously serviced. But within a short space of time these services were turned off because black people could not afford to pay for them.

How could this have occurred? The answer is that by 1997 the ANC-right, led by Mbeki, succeeded in shifting the ANC’s core policy direction. The signal that the Mbeki-ites had triumphed was the dropping of the RDP and its replacement by the Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy. With the adoption of GEAR the ANC embraced neoliberalism. The Brenthurst group of businessmen were, of course delighted—it was a vindication of all the resources the white South African business sector had invested in the Urban Foundation since the 1970s—a reformist project to create a pro-capitalist black middle class who could become the new (post-apartheid) ruling group (Louw 2005, p. 69).

GEAR opened the way for a new ANC project—government intervention would henceforth be geared to creating a ‘patriotic black bourgeoisie’ (Marais 2002, p. 96). This would be achieved by legislatively enforcing Affirmative Action and BEE. Affirmative Action enforced race-based quotas on all employers such that preference was to be given to employing blacks, initially called ‘the disadvantaged’, and later called ‘the previously disadvantaged’. Affirmative Action legislation also insisted upon the rapid promotion of blacks into management roles. Further, the government used its Affirmative Action policy to transform the racial composition of the civil service by retrenching whites and replacing them with blacks. In this way, a large black middle class was created in a short space of time—a black middle class that was effectively tied to an ANC-run patronage system.

In addition to Affirmative Action, the ANC adopted BEE, which legislated for the forcible transfer of capital into black hands. White capitalists were forced to acquired black partners and to hand over a percentage of their capital to these partners. In addition, quotas were introduced concerning the requirement for black board members. A number of ANC politicians who abandoned politics for business careers became wealthy as a result of BEE legislation. They were disparagingly referred to as ‘Gucci comrades’. For Mbeki, BEE was the vehicle to rapidly create a black capitalist elite of modernisers. Within his vision of modernisation, wealth would in due course trickle down from this elite to the broader mass of black South Africans. To date there has been no sign of such a trickle-down effect. Under Mbeki, this black capitalist elite forged close working relationships with white South African businessmen (and until the recent manifestations of infrastructural collapse—for example, electricity supply problems—white South African businessmen generally approved of the ANC under Mbeki).

The black poor are restive, wondering when the ANC’s promise of ‘a better life’ will happen.

The ‘patriotic black bourgeoisie’ created by Affirmative Action and BEE, of course, owed their success to the ANC, and so not surprisingly this new black middle class became the core constituency of Mbeki’s ANC-right. It is a constituency that has come to subscribe to the ideology of Africanism (for example, Mbeki’s ‘African Renaissance’ and ‘Nepad’ policies). Race consequently emerged as a central feature of politics, such that an Africanist-derived ‘race populism’ infected debates about the economy, AIDS and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (Mare 2003). A victim of this assertive Africanism has been ‘non racialism’ as advocated by the UDF during the 1980s. Effectively, a hybrid of social democracy and Africanism has come to characterise the ANC’s mainstream position under Mbeki—a hybrid discourse that serves to justify the ANC’s adoption of neoliberal economics and the enormous disparity in wealth between the black elite and the millions of black South Africans who have not benefited from ‘the transformation’. Mbeki regards his policies as progressive and pragmatic. During his years of exile in England Mbeki was converted to the social democracy of the British Labour Party (which served to distance him from the sort of communism which then commonly characterised ANC exile politics). Mbeki both worked for the Labour Party (as a door-to-door campaigner) and became engrossed in social democrat debates about a ‘Third Way’. Effectively, Mbeki now sees himself as implementing a variety of ‘Third Way’ reformism—that is, he is rearranging the opportunity structures of South African capitalism rather than overthrowing the system. This he sees as both a ‘progressive’ way to challenge the old order, and as pragmatic response to globalisation: if globalisation makes it impossible to transfer wealth to 100 per cent of the black population, then transferring wealth to 25 per cent will have to do. Effectively, he has adopted an Africanist view that empowering black people over white people is the way to reform South African capitalism, even if it is only some black people get to benefit from the initial reforms.

So which sectors of South African society show signs of dissatisfaction with Mbeki’s Africanist social democrat society? The black poor are restive, wondering when the ANC’s promise of ‘a better life’ will happen. Many of these people live in the ever growing slums of informal shacks that now surround all South African cities. Among them now live multitudes of refugees from other African societies (such as Zimbabwe and the Congo), which has bred a growing xenophobia towards African migrants that often manifests itself in violent attacks. This huge underclass is a constituency just waiting for someone to give voice to their resentments. To date Mbeki has prevented the ANC-left from doing this—by buying them off with patronage or destroying their careers. What will happen once Mbeki goes is a moot point.

Another unhappy group are middle and working class whites. These people, unlike white businessmen, have suffered the negative consequences of Affirmative Action and feel politically powerlessness. They routinely complain about what they perceive as ANC-led discrimination against whites, Africanism, corruption, an inefficient government bureaucracy and police system, a massive crime wave, and the killing of white farmers. The Mbeki-ites dismiss such criticism as ‘white racism’. For the ANC, white unhappiness is less threatening than the unhappiness of the black underclass, in part because emigration has served to lessen the pressure emanating from this sector given that an estimated 20 per cent of whites have emigrated since 1990 (Van Aart 2006).

Within South African’s post-apartheid story, Mbeki has been the seminal player; and Gumede, as a top journalist, provides a treasure-trove of facts about the unfolding Mbeki-saga. On balance, for anyone interested in understanding post-apartheid South Africa, Gumede’s book is well worth a read.


African National Congress 1994, The Reconstruction and Development Program, African National Congress, Johannesburg.

Giliomee, H. & Simkins, C. (eds) 1999, The Awkward Embrace, Harwood Academic, Amsterdam.

Louw, P.E. 2005, The Rise, Fall and Legacy of Apartheid, Praeger, Westport.

Marais, H. 2002, ‘The logic of expediency’, in Thabo Mbeki’s World, eds S. Jacobs & R. Calland, Zed, London.

Mare, G. 2003, ‘The state of the state: Contestation and race re-assertion in a neoliberal terrain’, in State of the Nation, eds J. Daniel, A. Habib & R. Southall, HSRC Press, Cape Town.

Seekings, J. 2000, The UDF, Ohio University Press.

Van Aardt, P. 2006 ‘Million whites leave South Africa—Study’, Fin24 [Online], Available: fin24.com [2008, Apr 24].

P. Eric Louw is Director of Communication Programs, School of Journalism and Communication, University of Queensland. He has published widely in the area of political communication.