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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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Harry Gwala

'Negotiations as presented by Joe Slovo. ' A response from...

Comrade Slovo opens his discussion paper with: "The starting point" and asks the question: "Why are we negotiating?"1 He then goes on to explain that by the end of the 80's the ruling class could no longer rule in the old way, while the liberation movement could not seize power and that we were therefore not dealing with a defeated enemy.

From this premise comrade Slovo advances what he calls a "theoretical framework". Theory is defined, by Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary as: "The analysis of a set of facts in their relation to one another". If this is the premise from which Comrade Slovo and I commence then we must say that our facts should be the objective conditions prevailing at a certain time in history. From this it should be clear, therefore, that theory must be complemented with practice, otherwise such theory will be sterile.

Comrade Slovo tells us that: "We, (my emphasis) are negotiating because towards the end of the 80's we concluded that, as a result of its escalating crisis, the apartheid power bloc was no longer able to continue ruling in the old way and was genuinely seeking some break with the past" (p36). He does not explain who this "We" is and where this decision was taken. We are not aware of any meeting where the oppressed masses of South Africa spoke in such despair and began saying: "The apartheid power bloc was ... genuinely seeking some break with the past". For the oppressed know that apartheid's power bloc, built on colonialism, is the maintenance of the means of production and the instruments of coercion that will protect these means of production. This is, to quote cde Slovo, their "bottom line".

Comrade Slovo's paper immediately goes on to talk of the "conjuncture of the balance of forces". Unfortunately, cde Slovo does not go deep into this in order to allow the reader to make his or her own assessment.

He does not go into the examination of the strength of the opposing forces.

Comrade Slovo rightly says, "in my mind, there was certainly never a prospect of forcing the regime's unconditional surrender across the table", he then says that, for this reason, "the negotiating table is neither the sole terrain of the struggle for power nor the place where it reaches its culminating point. In other words, negotiations is only a part, and not the whole, of the struggle for real people's power" (p36).

What should be clear to us is what I mentioned earlier about objective conditions, time and place. We are living at a time far different from the 40's and 50's. We are dealing with very articulate masses today, who are enriched by their own experiences in the struggle and guided by the experiences of other struggling masses throughout the world. As early as the 50's our people were talking about freedom in our lifetime and had slogans reflecting this freedom. The very Freedom Charter is a reflection of what the people understood by freedom.

Opposing forces

We cannot theorise in abstract. We are not talking about abstract democracy. We can also not generalise about the word people. That is why right from the beginning I spoke of concept and context. In this country we have two principal forces. The ruling class that controls the means of production, the state apparatus and the instruments that condition people's minds. In our country it is the white community which enjoys this monopoly. On the other hand, there is the vast majority of our people who are oppressed, exploited and discriminoted against. This is known as white domination. It dates back from the era of colonisation and culminated in what came to be known as apartheid. This constitutes the primary contradiction in this country and gives rise to suspicions from both sides.

Right from the beginning the oppressed have never ruled out negotiations. The birth of the African National Congress saw negotiating deputations going to Britain. The 1920's up until the 40's were marked by deputations and presentations of memoranda to the commissions of inquiry set up by the state. Trade Unions are masters of this art of negotiations: Negotiations and struggle are not mutually exclusive.

It would be difficult to have a yard-stick for any balance of forces since this depends on a number of factors. In South Africa we can safely say that we have travelled a long way from passivity marked by deputations and memoranda to the active involvement of the people themselves. The pursuit of the struggle through non-violent action was not a principle but a strategy applicable at a certain period in our struggle. The intensification of the struggle resulting in the banning of our organisations and the struggle reaching the stage of armed conflict, reflected a stage in the struggle for liberation.

1976 and mass mobilisation culminating in the formation of the United Democratic Front was also a stage in our struggle. Indeed, the people rendered apartheid unable to govern. The dream for people's power was more realistic than ever before. Lines were clearly drawn. There was apartheid on the one side, reflected in National Party rule together with its surrogates, and the people on the other side led by the liberation movement. Internationally big capital supported the apartheid regime because of their vested interests, while the democratic forces supported the struggling masses of South Africa. In all this the decisive contradiction was the internal contradiction in this country.

The balance of forces must therefore be seen in the light of what happened hitherto and should not be judged by this or that incident as we often do with the mass action. The mass action itself must be understood in its proper context.

The present mass action is not a key to the unlocking of deadlocks which once done must then be discarded for negotiations. Mass action is inherent in any struggle of the oppressed and is always intended to advance that struggle. Mass action assumes different forms. Insurrection being one of these forms. But this form is not something abstract which can just be theorised. It is determined by the weakness of the enemy, among other things, and the readiness of the people to carry it out. This pre-supposes an advanced leadership, the people having reached one and only one conclusion - that their only way out is the armed seizure of power: and the ability of the people to carry this out. Hence the warning: "Don't play with insurrection".

While the apartheid regime has got its apparatus of coercion still intact the base of this coercion - the economic base - is very much rattled. As a result of the intensification of the struggle, the ruling class has split into many factions, some of them extreme right with nazi manifestations. A National Party government has, after all its arrogance, been humbled into negotiating. All of this is because of the resilience of the people and the energy to go on fighting, and this energy is still abundant. The present mass action of the people and their demand for power are clear proof of this.


Today there is talk in some circles that mass action should only be used to break deadlocks so that a stage for negotiations is set.

By contrast, in countries like China and Vietnam the progressive forces engaged in armed struggle to achieve their independence. But they never ceased to talk at some stages of their struggle. However, this did not do away with their armed activities. Even in Tsarist Russia, the Bolsheviks, revolutionaries as they were, did not hesitate to negotiate when they felt it necessary to do so. In South Africa negotiations have always been part of our struggle. It was the enemy that always turned down this offer. Entering the Native Representative Council in the 30's was both a compromise and negotiating. However when this process became redundant people abandoned it.

In entering into the present negotiating it was not the people who compromised themselves but it was the apartheid regime that compromised itself since it had vowed never to talk to "terrorists". However it would be folly for the liberation movement to imagine that the enemy has suddenly seen reason. It is all a political struggle and must be viewed in the light of strategy and tactics of the struggle, not a change of heart.

We must start from clearly drawn "bottom-lines". The bottom-line of the oppressed African masses is the liberation of the African people. The bottom-line of the ruling class is to retain monopoly of the country's wealth and the coercive state machinery which would safe-guard this wealth. Hence the so called protection of minority rights. Any compromises must be seen in this light.

The question may well arise: Have the people themselves made any compromise? The answer is - yes, we have, We have suspended the seizure of power for a negotiated settlement. We have also compromised on regionalism. The very fact that in CODESA there are puppet bodies like bantustans and some organisations that only exist in name was in itself a big compromise. What the people want must not be covered in high sounding theories that boggle the mind, but we must engage in simple theories that reflect the true situation.

Comrade Slovo tells us that the immediate outcome of the negotiating process will inevitably be less than perfect but that, if it is strategically acceptable, then a degree of compromise will be unavoidable. This postulate leaves out the actual forces involved and negotiations seem to depend on the skill of the negotiators. Such a postulate, which cuts out the masses of the oppressed, becomes more concerned with what the right-wing would do as if the right-wing has suddenly come up to the surface. In the National Party we are dealing with the right-wing. The right- wing in this country is distinguished by tendencies rather than substance.

Comrade Slovo talks of pre-empting the objectives of the counter-revolution and reducing its base. When Allende in Chile won his popular democracy he advanced the same reasoning but it was that right wing with the aid of big capital which kicked his government out of power. In Portugal, while the people won a political vote, power remained in the hands of big capital and the army. The people were faced with the situation where they had constitutional power, while the actual economic and military power remained in the hands of the ruling class. Hence an empty democracy. What in fact cde Slovo is advancing is what was advanced by Palmiro Togliatti in Italy and Maurice Thorez in France and failed dismally in both countries. This was revisionism which went under the name of Euro-Communism.

They came up with this theory when they felt that socialism and revolution were in a far, distant future. Comrade Joe Slovo also reasons in the same way. But what about the people? The people reason differently.

Although it is difficult to locate cde Slovo when he wrote this article, the fact that it appeared in The African Communist gives the impression that he wrote it not only as a member of the Party but as its National Chairman. Despite the fact that he said it was his individual effort, it still remains that it was his effort as the National Chairman of the Party and we can't escape the conclusion that it is the voice of the Party. Because of this, the article must be critically examined.

Where is the class basis of this analysis? What are the class forces in this country? What is the character of our national liberation struggle? What is the mainstay of our revolution? In dealing with crucial matters of our time we cannot talk as if these things do not exist. Over-looking them leads us to very dangerous conclusions. We find such things as "moral high ground". But the question is never posed: The morality of which class, and whose high ground? We are told that negotiations are "clearly a key element or stage in the struggle process towards full and genuine liberation". The oppressed will never agree with this because it subjects all forms of other struggle to this so-called key element or stage. This marks the point of departure from those who regard negotiations as a product of struggle and an-other terrain of struggle. The key element is the struggle itself and negotiations must be subjected to the struggle.

Cde Slovo has put his hopes in negotiations and advises us that: "we can realistically project the possibility of an outcome for the negotiating process which would result in the liberation movement occupying significantly more favourable heights (my emphasis) from which to advance" (p37).

This overlooks the "bottom lines" of the ruling class and the fact that we are engaged in a struggle against an enemy with entrenched interests. History is full of examples where the goal posts have been shifted. The case of the Communist Party of France is a lesson no communist should forget. Comrade Cachin was elected president in 1946 but the ruling class then altered the rules of the game so that the Party lost all other subsequent elections.

We see De Klerk playing similar games in this country. To theorise about beautiful constitutions and many "ifs" will not change the rules of the liberation struggle. In China communists negotiated with Chiang Kaishek. In 1946 they even offered him presidency but those negotiations broke down and the war went on. In Vietnam negotiations carried on for years until the Americans were driven out in 1975. These empirical comparisons do not mean that the situation will be the same in South Africa. But the liberation struggles in the rest of Africa can in no way be our guide since these were against colonial masters far way in Europe. Here, we are dealing with colonialism right in our midst. Conditions here are those of socio-economic transformation where political power must encompass the dissolution of the present structures of coercion. Without state power as distinct from constitutional power this cannot realised.

Comrade Slovo has spent time on power sharing and thinks it is a desirability. But no explanation is given to us why from the beginning of the Union in 1910 in South Africa the winner took all; and why in Western Europe the winning party forms the government. All this is accepted as a model of democracy.

The answer here is that it is because the majority in this country are Africans who under the leadership of the liberation movement would win the elections. Therefore power must not slip from white hands. In other words it will be an aborted democracy built on expediency.

Comrade Slovo goes on to show how much he is silent on the fears of the majority in this country. Negotiations must not reconcile the oppressed to neo-apartheid dressed in the robes of a new constitution. George Bernard Shaw says: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions".

It is not the good intentions of the negotiators and their ability to talk that will determine the fate of this country, important as this part of the struggle maybe. But it will be the strength and the ability of the contenders in the struggle that, in the final analysis, will determine the fate of this country. Any political expediency will lead to disaster.


1. See Joe Slovo, 'Negotiations: What room for compromises?', The African Communist, 3rd quarter 1992, p.36

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