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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

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'Let us take the people with us: A reply to Joe Slovo' by...

The contribution by Comrade Slovo on the question of negotiations is to be welcomed, firstly, because it opens the debate on some of the tricky aspects of the negotiations process, thereby contributing towards making the process more transparent than it has been; secondly, it raises and contributes towards a theoretical frame-work within which to conceptualise the negotiations process. However, as I argue below, Slovo's theoretical framework is far from adequate1.

Comrade Slovo's entry point to the theorisation of negotiations is the question of compromises. Given the sensitive nature of this issue, there might be a temptation to assess Slovo's contribution primarily from an emotional angle. I will attempt to engage some of the fundamental issues raised by Slovo, rather than merely expressing horror at the compromises he suggests the movement should and could make.

Important as Slovo's contribution is, it suffers from some major omissions and problematic assumptions, both stated and unstated. As a result of his failure to develop an adequate theoretical framework,Slovo does not appreciate the extreme danger in the type of compromises he suggests.

Theorising negotiations

Slovo attempts to theorise negotiations from the point of view of the negotiations process itself rather than from the wider basis of theorising our struggle and the current conjuncture. If our strategic perspective and line is that negotiations are a site of struggle, and that the process should be mass-driven, then our theoretical starting point cannot be negotiations per se. Whilst it is important to reflect on the negotiations process as such, this should be within the wider context of our strategy and tactics. Our strategic objective is the transfer of power to the people, and it is within this that any discussion around negotiations should be located. Slovo's failure to start from this angle makes his contribution rather technical as will be demonstrated shortly.

In order to lay the basis for an approach to negotiations by our Party, and the liberation movement as a whole, we should be clear about the strategic objectives of the enemy as well as our own strategic approach to democratic transformation. The process our struggle has entered is not new in national liberation struggles. Vilas, a Latin American academic and activist, points to a process of democratic transitions initiated by previously repressive regimes in an attempt to defeat revolutions in their countries. According to Vilas, in the context of Latin America, these democratic transitions' are "...those non-revolutionary processes whereby some military dictatorships in South America have given ground on question of political regimes based on the principle of universal suffrage"2. Vilas identifies some key characteristics of these democratic transitions, including restricting the process of political change to the institutional sphere in the strictest sense. Most important about such 'transitions'is that: "they do not project into the economic sphere, nor do they provide a framework for any substantial changes in the level of access of subordinate groups to socio-economic resources - by income redistribution,creating employment, improving living conditions, etc."3

Secondly, the power bases - for example the army - of the reforming regime are left untouched, and limits are placed on cracking down on prosecuting perpetrators of crimes against revolutionary movements. Vilas further points out that in such transitions, the oldregime tries to project itself as the liberator of the very masses it has oppressed and continues to oppress. This is usually done through projecting a political figures as a democrat and new saviour of the political situation in the country.

Whilst such situations are not a carbon-copy of what is happening in South Africa, it is clear that the De Klerk regime has taken more than a page from these examples. The ascendancy of De Klerk and attempts to project him as the liberator, a reasonable man and a man of democracy is a reflection of the attempts by the South African ruling class to defeat our revolution. Imperialism has backed this strategy by providing space and credibility for De Klerk internationally. Central to this strategy is an attempt to introduce constitutional changes in such a way that the economic base of the ruling class remains untouched. In fact, the aim of the political changes is to secure a firmer basis for capital accumulation under new conditions. The vicious attack on the ANC's economic programme - whose basis is the Freedom Char-ter - is aimed at discrediting any alternatives to a 'free market' economy; thereby securing the economic programme of the ruling bloc as the only credible alternative. Concretely, the regime is engaged in widespread unilateral re-structuring in education, health, the economy, and so on, in order to put in place institutional arrangements a democratic government would find difficult to reverse.

Located within this strategy, albeit uncomfortably, is the protection and entrenchment of white minority privilege. A classic example here is the transformation of white state schools into semi-private (Model C) schools. Key decision-making powers are handed to these schools such that it is white parents who decide on curriculum, admissions and overall management of the schools. Such an arrangement will place it more and more beyond the means of not only the black but also the white working class. This is a contradiction which permeates throughout unilateral restructuring and which increasingly alienates the white working class and sections of the white middle class who have been enjoying sheltered employment in the public service. It is for this reason that these sectors of the white community are increasingly attracted to the ultra-right organisations, which promise the 'heaven and earth' of Verwoerdian apartheid. This shows the sharpening contradiction between the regime's attempts to secure white privilege across classes and a political settlement that will lay a firmer foundation for accumulation.

Central to the whole strategy of the ruling class to defeat our revolution is the waging of low intensity warfare against the ANC and its allies. The viciousness of this strategy and its detailed implementation, so meticulously described by our General Secretary, Chris Hani4, serves to underline the brutal determination of the regime to destroy the tripartite alliance on the ground.

In all cases of limited democratisation by repressive regimes there is absolute determination to tightly control the process from above. This is done in order to ensure that, whatever the outcome of the constitutional negotiation process, it must at all costs favour the ruling class and the old regime. A classic example of this control from above is the unilateral re-structuring and the regime's determination to use the negotiation process to boost the legitimacy of apartheid institutions. The fact that the regime wants negotiated settlements to be approved by the tricameral parliament and, obviously, the bantustan parliaments as well, forces us into a tacit recognition of these institutions. Furthermore, it gives such institutions a key role to play in the process. De Klerk's arrogance that he will not allow the ANC to dictate the pace in a Constituent Assembly - even regardless of an election outcome - serves to underline the fact that the regime has a conception of the negotiating process as resulting in limited democratisation only.

Carefully managed, and depending on the strategy and tactics of the national liberation movement at this point in time, this process of limited democratisation in South Africa could lead to demobilisation of the mass organisations and the people as a whole, leading to the isolation and weakening of the national liberation movement. To a certain degree, there is an element of this in South Africa at the moment. A few examples might suffice here. The apartheid regime has tried by all means to depoliticise civic and socio-economic issues resulting in a weakened mass democratic movement. This has been done by attempting to separate civic and socio-economic issues from political-constitutional questions, which might have the effect of depoliticising civic and trade union struggles and channelling political struggles through the negotiations process only. The regime understands full well that these civic, trade union, and socio-economic struggles were the engine of our struggle in the 1980's. The regime has also tried to institutionalise struggles through mechanisms (for example, CODESA) created between it and the major components of the national liberation movement, and then discredits any mass struggles outside, claiming that they are undermining the negotiations process. The privatisation of key social services is also aimed at creating a rupture between the nature of white minority rule and the provision of services like education, health, and housing.

The above serves to illustrate one very important point, that the ruling class and the De Klerk regime are engaged in new strategies to completely defeat the liberation movement. If this fails, then at least the ruling class should effectively have a veto power in any new constitutional dispensation, so as to protect its interests. In other words, for the ruling class, the negotiations are not about handing over power, but about keeping power, albeit using a different route. In fact, the regime well under-stands and has implemented our own strategic perspective of treating negotiations as a site of struggle. The regime knows very well that its aims of keeping power and protecting the base for capital accumulation will not be fought for and won at the table, but through the spilling of blood in our townships and residential areas, through unilateral restructuring of all facets of life, through maximum and strategic deployment of its surrogates in the bantustans, and through a sustained ideological offensive against the political and economic programme of the tripartite alliance.

These points serve to illustrate problematic areas in Comrade Slovo '5 contribution. Firstly, any attempts at theorisation of the above is not only inadequate, but obscures the wider determinants of the negotiations process itself. Secondly, any move or gesture on our part must always be assessed against the strategic objectives of the enemy. Comrade Slovo under-stands this, but unfortunately the types of compromises he proposes and the manner in which he proposes that these should be made, are premised on the assumption that the regime will appreciate a gesture on our part, seeing itas a gesture of goodwill. Slovo states that the sunset clauses he is proposing would create the possibility of a major positive breakthrough in the negotiating process. Maybe so, but this has to be demonstrated rather than merely hoped for. We have already learnt some bitter lessons about compromises. Our suspension of armed action must already have taught us some lessons about the type of enemy we are dealing with. At roughly the same time as we suspended armed action, the regime intensified the brutal slaying of our people in the town-ships, rural areas, and on trains. We therefore have to seriously question proposed compromises that are not weighed up against the strategic objectives of the enemy.

Negotiations as a site struggle

Nevertheless, the regime's strategies are always contested, with their course of development being determined by the balance of forces at different conjunctures of the struggle. The regime can succeed with its own designs only if the national liberation movement is weak, and therefore cannot impose its own advanced alternatives.

The national liberation movement responded to the post-February 1990 developments quite correctly by adopting the strategic perspective of the transfer of power to the people, and within this, seeing negotiations as a site of struggle. The content of this strategic perspective, I would argue, is threefold. Firstly it enabled the national liberation movement to relate its own unbanning not to being a break with the past but a continuation of a long process of national democratic revolution under new conditions. Secondly, it kept the strategic objective of the transfer of power to the people in place whilst at the same time engaging the regime in negotiations. This would act as a guarantee that the national liberation movement would not allow the struggle to be quarantined within the negotiations process, but even more important, it would ensure that the mass struggle drives the process itself.

Thirdly, this perspective, if translated into a coherent political programme, would ensure that, if negotiations collapse, the struggle itself will be so advanced that other avenues of achieving the strategic objective would remain open. It would allow tactical flexibility, such that the movement could negotiate with the regime whilst at the same time not ruling out the possibility of rapidly setting in place a strategic path towards a seizure of power if negotiations fail.

The breakdown of CODESA 2 and our programme of mass action gave us an opportunity to re-connect with our people in struggle after having adopted what was essentially a 'tap approach' to negotiations and mass struggle. In other words,the rolling mass action enabled us to correct our mistakes and then drew us back to our main strategic perpective.

Against the above analysis, the main weaknesses of Slovo's approach are revealed.

A self-fulfilling prophecy

The first major weakness in Slovo's theorisation is that of focusing primarily on our failure to dislocate the regime, thereby being forced to take the negotiations route. Whilst this failure is true and needs to be pointed out, Slovo simply succumbs to this scenario and does not take up the most important question of how we build up capacity to force outcomes favourable to a thorough national democratic transformation.

The reasons Slovo advances to justify his approach to negotiations are all based on the weakness of the liberation movement and hardly tackle its strengths and how we can build on these. For example, he deduces four main points about the negotiations process from an analysis of the balance of forces. Firstly heargues that, since the outcome of the negotiations process will be less than perfect, compromise is unavoidable. Whilst this is true, Slovo does not tackle the question of how we can improve the capacity of the negotiations process to deliver within the context of our strategic framework for negotiations. Similarly the second point on counterrevolution, though legitimate, is taken as a fait accompli without exploring the question of the role of mass struggle in minimising this threat. The main reason Slovo advances such an approach to negotiations is because, in developing his scenario, the masses are absent and, instead, the issue becomes primarily that of trade-offs between negotiators, constrained by the logic of the negotiations process.

It is in this way that Slovo's approach becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: because we are weak and have already compromised, we might as well compromise further. Because negotiations will deliver less, we might as well aim for less. There is nothing wrong in realistically assesssing our weaknesses, but what is problematic is to undertake such an assessment purely on the basis of these weaknesses without exploring how we can qualitatively change the balance of forces.


Due to Slovo's failure to locate his contribution within our strategic approach to negotiations, the issues are treated in an extremely one-sided manner. This one-sidedness arises out of the total absence of the role of the masses in the negotiations process. In his article he is primarily concerned with the freedom that should be given to negotiators to negotiate on and enter into agreements, without being concerned about the reverse process of account-ability to the constituency and the role that our constituency should play. In fact, the key question facing the national liberation movement in general, and our Party in particular, is how to ensure that the rolling mass action sets in place a continuous process linking our constituency directly to the negotiations process.

It is very strange that, whilst our strategic perspective is that of negotiations being a site of struggle, we are so silent about the kind of mechanisms, processes and structures that should be put in place to ensure that the negotiations process is driven from below. Once a process where the masses play a central role in negotiations is set in motion, the question of compromises becomes secondary. The question of when and how to compromise is only a headache if the negotiators are detached from the people. In fact, the success of the rolling mass action will only be fully realised once negotiations resume and the involvement of the masses in the negotiations proces. One would have expected that this would have been uppermost in Slovo's mind, yet the way he casts the issues mirrors the mistakes of the CODESA process,where negotiators were quietly hidden at the World Trade Centre, away from the people.

Slovo asserts that it is not conducive to negotiations to have to consult with the whole organisation on every such concession. This is true, but it becomes less of problematic if structures are in place such that the constituency is part of every stage of the process. It is within such a context that it is decided as to which compromises are qualitative and which are quantitative. The question is who decides on the type of compromises, and how? Compromises are not abstractly qualitative or quantitative. What seems quantitative can become qualitative against the background of the pack-age as a whole and the development of events in the country.

For Slovo to say that the passion generated by our 70% concession on the issue of majorities in a Constituent Assembly was totally misplaced, is to miss the point entirely. In as much as our constituency was justifiably perturbed by this, the reaction was also a reflection of a deeper problem, that of the absence of ad-equate consultative process between the negotiators and the constituency. Instead of regarding this reaction as misplaced, we should find a way to deal with such problems in future.

The one-sidedness of Slovo's contribution is also reflected in his being concerned only with addressing the fears of the ruling class and the white minority. The aspirations and fears of our people hardly feature. The sooner we ad-dress this issue correctly, the better are our prospects of achieving a decisive advance in our struggle. For too long we have been concerned with the fears of the minority at the expense of the aspirations and fears of the majority. Paramount amongst these is the fear of a sell-out; the birth of deformed democracy; no improvement in socio-economic conditions; and even worse, the emergence of a repressive 'power-sharing' regime. The sooner we concern ourselves with these the firmer a foundation for liberation we lay. We cannot continue to take the majority of the people for granted.

Even more disturbing in Slovo ' s approach is the bland assertion that the kinds of compromises he is talking about will lead to the liberation movement occupying the moral high ground. It is time we interrogate, problematise and be brutally frank about this moral high ground. There is a fundamental contradiction between the morality of our constituency and that of the ruling class and its imperialist backers. Whilst it is important to occupy the moral high ground all round this is, in most cases, impossible. In fact, at every turn in the development revolutionary struggle, revolutionary organisations are faced with a choice between the morality of the masses and that of the ruling class and imperialism. We are pressurised from both sides. The ruling class and imperialism always put pressure on us to moderate our programmes (eg. nationalisation). In doing so (occupying the moral high ground as defined by the ruling class), we may win the favour of the ruling class but alienate, demoralise and confuse our rank and file, and as such we would he occupying the moral low ground in so far as our people are concerned. In tackling the issue of a high moral ground it is important that we uncompromisingly take the people with us. Because, after all, they are the only mass contingent that will take us to liberation. The question of a moral high ground can also be dealt with in the context of a mass-driven negotiations process. This is not an issue to be judged by the negotiators alone.

Majority rule

It is important to examine Slovo's proposal for a compulsory power-sharing arrangement with the National Party even if the liberation movement has decisively won an election. A power-sharing arrangement should not be a pre-determined arrangement but an outcome of the balance of forces at the time of reaching a settlement . Our immediate goal should be the total defeat of the National Party and the apartheid regime, and in so doing, we should not aim at any power-sharing arrangement whatsoever. At the same time, we must not rule out such an eventuality. There are irreconcilable differences between the objectives of the white ruling bloc in South Africa and the national liberation movement. The first step towards the total abolition of apartheid is the total and decisive defeat of the National Party, which is our immediate enemy in terms of national democratic transformation.

There are many other issues which are unclear in Slovo's approach to power-sharing. Does he mean that we would willingly allow an executive with the National Party and its constituency having a veto power in terms ofrunning the country? If so, then our goal of liberating this country will be postponed for a very long time. If not, what is the point of a power-sharing arrangement? It is also not clear why such an offer is being made now. Slovo seems to be resigned to the fact that the new government will be controlled by apartheid officials.

We need to discuss ways and means of dealing with this situation, other than just presenting one option, that of power-sharing.

In as much as the regime is preparing itself to hold a democratic government at ransom through, amongst other things, the current unilateral restructuring, we should be doing the same by preparing ourselves to deal with sabotage by apartheid officials, counterrevolution and to quickly create a new army and police force.

Our stance therefore should be to uncompromisingly and unashamedly aim at majority rule. If we decisively defeat the Nationalist Party and its surrogates in a democratic election, let them become the opposition or disappear from the face of a democratic South Africa.

Our approach to negotiations: the people shall govern!

In the light of the above, what should our approach to negotiations be? It should be rooted in our perspective of transfer of power to the people and negotiations as a site of struggle. Within this framework, the key tasks facing the national liberation movement are:

i. The immediate creation of structures, mechanisms and processes for speedy and effective consultation between the negotiators and our constituency. This must be more than simply briefing sessions. An arrangement must be made for our constituency to be effectively involved in overseeing and directing the negotiations process. As part of this process, we should assist and encourage the regional structures of the tripartite alliance to facilitate continuous interaction on the negotiations process with grassroots structures.

ii. The linkage between mass struggles at regional and national level and the negotiations process also requires carefully planned preparations and processes.

iii. We should, without delay, be renewing our mandate through discussions through our structures on our bottom line, paying particular attention to local meetings and discussions. By so doing, our constituency will fully under-stand and be able to contribute to our overall demands and bottom line at the table. This should have preceded any major bilateral or multi-lateral discussions with the regime. An ideal opportunity to undertake this process would be the ANC and SACP regional congresses taking place between now and the end of the year.

iv. Any agreement on a complete package at the negotiations table should be provisional until ratified by a special consultative conference of the entire tripartite alliance.

v. We should also set in motion co-ordinated and focused processes on how to deal with the probable outcomes Slovo is talking about. For example, the rapid restructuring of the public service, the creation of a new army and police force, and overall structures that will ensure that in the quickest and shortest possible time we implement the very first clause of the Freedom Charter: 'The people shall govern'.

This emphasis on the masses is not a rhetorical exercise. What must be emphasised is that the reason why a mass-driven transition process is important is that the nature of the state emerging out of this will be dependent on the type of transition undertaken. The way power is transferred affects the manner in which power is exercised thereafter.

A mass-driven transition process would lay a better foundation for real democracy, whereas a bureaucratic transition (a pact between elites) will lead to an undemocratic and reactionary post-apartheid regime.

The above, in my view, would constitute an approach to negotiations which is line with our own strategic framework.


1. This contribution has benefitted greatly from discussions and debates in the Regional Congress of the SACP in the Natal Midlands, held between 9-11 October 1992 in Pietermaritzburg, as well as the Special Meeting of the Central Committee of the SACP held on 15 October 1992. However the views stated here do not reflect the official position of any of these structures.

2. Vilas, C (1989) "Revolution and Democracy in Latin America" in The Socialist Register, 1989, p.40.

3. ibid.

4. See "Just how possible is peace?" address by SACP General Secretary Chris Haiti, African Communist, 3rd, Quarter, 1992.

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