Research and Policy Brief: NDR: the cornerstone of any policy analysis of South Africa - 27th August 2010

The current public service strike has brought to the fore the bitter nature of the power struggle at play in the ruling ANC/SACP/COSATU alliance. Our current assessment is that factions in the alliance, perhaps led by the ANC Youth League, are preparing to execute a political coup at the ANC’s 2012 conference in Bloemfontein. At its most serious this political shift may include the axing of Jacob Zuma and his forced resignation as president of South Africa. At the very least infighting ahead of the 2012 conference will continue to destabilize the alliance. This will have the effect of destabilizing the broader policy environment in the country and therefore causing a rise in levels of uncertainty about the future of the country. It is our assessment that it is only possible to make sense of the policy environment in South Africa by understanding the ANC’s concept of a National Democratic Revolution (NDR). The NDR is poorly understood in South Africa but it serves as the philosophical and ideological grounding of the ANC. Its origins, its importance after 1994, its consequences, and the countervailing forces acting against it are reviewed in the abridged analysis below.


1. The NDR to which the ANC remains committed has its roots in Lenin’s theory of Imperialism. According to this theory, Britain and other European colonial powers owed their prosperity solely to the ruthless exploitation of the black and brown masses in their colonies.

2. Though this theory initially seemed difficult to apply in South Africa, in 1950 the Communist Part stated that the country was characterised by ‘colonialism of a special type’: a situation in which both the colonisers and the colonised lived within the same borders.

3. In the late 1950s, as the process of de-colonisation accelerated, the Soviet Union paid particular attention to the issue of national democratic revolutions. According to a special committee [later led by a man named Karen Brutents], the defining features of national democratic revolutions are that ‘they lead to the elimination of colonial…oppression and are also latent with anti-capitalist tendency,…paving the way for transition to socialist reconstruction’.

4. South Africa, alone among other African countries, was seen by the Soviets as having particular potential to ‘shorten the stage of the national democratic revolution’ and move swiftly to socialism. This was because of its large labour force and supposedly strong support for the SACP. Even in South Africa, however, a transitional period was not ruled out.

5. In 1962 the SACP adopted a new programme called the Road to South African Freedom. This began by identifying South Africa as a colony and calling for ‘a national democratic revolution to destroy white domination’. Thereafter, it urged the ‘democratisation’ of the state by making it demographically representive. It also called on the new state to defend revolutionary gains through ‘a vigorous and vigilant dictatorship…by the people against the former dominating and exploiting classes’.

6. In 1969, at the Morogoro Conference, the ANC endorsed this perspective in a Strategy and Tactics document which was largely a ‘watered-down version’ of the SACP’s 1962 programme.

The NDR after 1994

1. Though these distant events might seem irrelevant to South Africa today, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the ANC remains strongly influenced by this kind of thinking. In particular, the organisation remains deeply committed to a national democratic revolution (NDR) to free black South Africans from the ‘political and economic bondage’ allegedly imposed by white colonialism.

2. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ANC was seemingly intent on moving very quickly through the ‘anti-capitalist’ stages of the NDR to the introduction of socialism. However, the USSR’s disintegration then ushered in a very different world. In the current global environment, as the ANC warned at its Stellenbosch national conference in 2002, ‘a simplistic and dramatic abolition of the capitalist market, with the state seizing the means of production’ would be ‘a sure recipe for the defeat of the NDR’. The NDR in South Africa must now, perforce, take longer to implement but its goal remains the full ‘economic emancipation’ of the country. As Moscow-born academic Irina Filatova puts it, anyone familiar with Marxist terminology knows that ‘economic emancipation’ can never be achieved under capitalism.

3. Since coming to power in April 1994, the ANC has adopted three key Strategy and Tactics documents setting out the current tasks of the NDR and weighing up the balance of forces which either assist or obstruct them. On the whole, the ANC seems pleased with the progress made, saying at Polokwane that this provided ‘a basis for the speedier implementation’ of the NDR in the future.

4. Current tasks of the NDR, as set out at the Mafikeng conference in 1997, the Stellenbosch conference in 2002, and the recent Polokwane conference in 2007, are to:

a) liberate blacks from ‘political and economic bondage’ ie: from the exploitation arising from colonialism of a special type;
b) ‘eliminate apartheid property relations’ via the ‘redistribution of wealth and income’;
c) ‘democratise’ the state and society via demographic representivity in all spheres.

5. Cosatu and the SACP go further, making it clear that the NDR is intended to provide the foundation for a socialist and then communist society. However, this goal is not overt in ANC documents, which also commonly express worthy aims most people would endorse (eg to increase state efficiency, accelerate economic growth, counter AIDS and improve education).

Consequences of the NDR

Some of the consequences of the ANC’s commitment to the NDR include:

1. The ANC used the strategy of people’s war to help eliminate black political rivals and secure its hegemony in the post-apartheid era.

2. The ANC still sees itself as a national liberation movement responsible for implementing a national democratic revolution and hence as uniquely entitled to rule. This makes it contemptuous of Parliament, opposition parties and the press, and determined to reverse adverse electoral outcomes, as in the Western Cape in 2009

3. The ANC does not regard itself as bound by the Constitution and has no principled commitment to press freedom, property rights, or an independent judiciary

4. The ANC has used cadre deployment to give itself control over all the ‘levers of state power’. It also seeks to use this mechanism to extend its control over institutions whose independence is essential to democracy – the judiciary, the press, civil society, universities.

5. The ANC demands demographic representivity in employment in both the public and the private sector. It has made rapid progress towards this in the public service and has increased the pressure on business to follow suit via the BEE Codes of Good Practice and warnings of increased fines under the Employment Equity Act.

6. At Polokwane, the ANC said that ‘the need for affirmative action will decline in the same measure as all centres of power and influence become broadly representative of the country’s demographics’. This suggests that other BEE targets, eg the 26% equity target for mining companies, will be increased over time.

7. Overall, the emphasis since 1994 has not been on growing the economic pie but rather on bringing about the redistribution of existing wealth and income from whites to blacks. This is evident in employment equity and BEE laws, in the way in which the ANC has taken control of water and mining rights, and in recurrent calls for nationalisation.

Countervailing forces

There are, however, many countervailing forces limiting the rapid implementation of the NDR.

These include:

1. The post Soviet Union global environment which is still strongly capitalist, even though the recent financial crisis has, as the ANC puts it, helped to ‘demonstrate the bankruptcy of neo-liberalism’ and ‘open up space for progressive alternatives’. The fact remains, however, that direct investors have plenty of choices as to where to commit their money, exporters have to be competitive, and the South African economy is unlikely to thrive in isolation from the global market place.

2. In the current phase of the NDR – in which the economy has a mix of public and private ownership – private enterprise has to be ‘kept sufficiently profitable’, as the ANC acknowledges. The ANC understands the importance of the tax revenues that business generates and it strives to keep business on side as much as possible.

3. There is a great deal of division within the ANC and the wider tripartite alliance on the correct way forward. Gear both illustrated and reinforced those divisions, while there is currently a strong ‘nationalist’ backlash at recent attempts by the SACP and Cosatu to put the alliance, rather than the ANC, at the head of policy making and implementation.

4. Cadre deployment is essential to the NDR but it is also contrary to the Constitution and has been ruled illegal in a recent judgment. In addition, some trade unionists want a professional civil service while the new ANC leadership has expressed concern at the arrogance and incompetence displayed by many deployed cadres at local level, for this is fuelling ‘service-delivery’ protests against local authorities which are ANC- controlled.

5. Affirmative action is also essential to the NDR but it has simultaneously given ANC cadres, as the ruling party puts it, ‘unprecedented opportunities for individual material gain’. Cosatu and the SACP are more blunt, saying it has led to ‘a crass materialism’ which now threatens to derail the NDR.

6. For many years, the ANC succeeded in projecting itself as selflessly committed to freeing South Africa from oppression. Now, however, as it admits, it is widely seen as corrupt, self-serving, and beset by internal conflict as cadres jostle for the fruits of power.

7. Finally, South Africa has an important and strong tradition of critical vigilance. The press and most organisations in civil society have thus far given the ANC a remarkably easy ride on many issues – particularly as regards the people’s war and the NDR itself. However, recent threats to the press mean that newspapers might now be waking up to the risks confronting the country. With its own autonomy under threat, the press may begin to see that freedom is indeed indivisible - and that it has to be strongly defended against every assault. Hence, if the current media bills are defeated and the press begins to do more to expose the ‘dark’ side of the ANC, this will help strip the ruling party of the moral authority on which it has thus far relied to win votes and to push ahead with the NDR notwithstanding its evident costs.


- Dr Anthea Jeffery with Frans Cronje, Unit for Risk Analysis