It is easy to lapse into reformism now, socialism (whatever that might mean) being in retreat on so many fronts. On much of the Left, the language of ‘reasonableness’ replaces the language of revolution, with those who conform to the nostrums of ‘Marxism–Leninism’ and/or ‘Trotskyism’ seeming more antiquated and naive—more ‘ultra-leftist’—than ever. Certainly in South Africa the present reality casts a dark shadow over these latter enthusiasms, any neat juxtaposition of ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’ sounding increasingly beside the point. Indeed, despite the advances epitomized in last February’s dramatic unbanning of the opposition movements and the release of Nelson Mandela, we are still very far from the future prophesied by Sweezy and Magdoff when, at the height of the insurrection of the mid 1980s, they defined South Africa as ‘the only country with a well-developed, modern capitalist structure which is not only “objectively” ripe for revolution but has actually entered a stage of overt and seemingly irreversible revolutionary struggle.’footnote1 In both the short and the longer term, the way forward to a more egalitarian South Africa presents far more complicated challenges than any easy invocation of the need for a ‘worker’s party’ and the urging of some kind of maximalist confrontation with capital can hope to resolve.footnote2

In the short term? Witness the difficulties of the current political moment, one that defines itself around ‘negotiations’ and the process of shaping a new constitutional dispensation. This is the moment that many saw, in the enthusiasms of last February, as bearing the promise of (minimally) a real deracialization of capitalism and (potentially) a great deal more. Now this process itself appears flawed, grievously if not fatally, with some of those who most starkly juxtaposed the danger of ‘mere reform’ to the drive for revolution wondering aloud whether even meaningful reform is possible in the present conjuncture.footnote3 Indeed, we glimpse here a concern that must haunt any approach to contemporary South Africa. For there is, currently, a simultaneity of two distinct moments—the negotiations moment, the post-apartheid moment—in the South African historical process, a simultaneity that both clouds analysis and compromises action. Thus, even as South Africans press forward to shape the post-apartheid dispensation, they are dragged back, brutally, into the present, where continuing stalemate over the modalities of ‘democratization’ has created space for the grimmest of barbarisms—all too familiar to us from an endless spate of newspaper accounts of the ‘killing fields’ that South Africa’s townships have become. Although almost worn smooth through overuse, Gramsci’s epigram nonetheless rings cruelly true of contemporary South Africa: ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.’

And what if the new cannot, in fact, be born; if the morbidity of the interregnum merely shows South Africans the face of their own future? We must countenance this possibility in the present article, yet, at the same time, avoid becoming fixated with it. In the immediacy of the moment South Africans must, indeed, struggle to counter the pull towards chaos in their country—the pull towards ‘Lebanization’ (as a number of sage South African observers would have it). But the best of South African militants are also struggling to build a future beyond the interregnum; to divine, to begin to shape, the parameters of a new, post-apartheid South Africa. True, even a democratization of South Africa that remained narrowly political would be a useful achievement in the context of the country’s sad history and glowering present. Yet if this levelling impulse were not to be pressed forward to redress the socioeconomic inequalities that have been inherent in South Africa’s brand of racial capitalism, any new ‘freedom’ would quickly be rendered very formal indeed for the vast mass of the black population.

In fact, as we shall see, most of the key actors in South Africa now pay at least lip service to this latter premiss. But what has any such imperative come to imply for the Left per se? Not, for the most part, any very precipitate plunge into full-blown social revolution. Rather, at its most relevant the Left seems to be groping towards something we might choose to call ‘structural reform’. In effect, this means applying to South Africa a distinction once delineated by André Gorz between a ‘genuinely socialist policy of reforms [and] reformism of the neocapitalist or “social-democratic” type’: ‘If immediate socialism is not possible, neither is the achievement of reforms directly destructive of capitalism. [Yet] those who reject all lesser reforms on the grounds that they are merely reformist are in fact rejecting the whole possibility of a transitional strategy and of a process of transition to socialism.’footnote4 But what, within such a transition, is to distinguish ‘structural reform’ from mere ‘reformism’?

There are two chief attributes. One lies in the insistence that any reform, to be structural, must not be comfortably self-contained (a mere ‘improvement’), but must, instead, be allowed self-consciously to implicate other ‘necessary’ reforms that flow from it as part of an emerging project of structural transformation.footnote5 In Gorz’s words, any ‘intermediary reforms. . .are to be regarded as a means and not an end, as dynamic phases in a progressive struggle, not as stopping places.’footnote6 Secondly, a structural reform cannot come from on high; instead it must root itself in popular initiatives in such a way as to leave a residue of further empowerment—in terms of growing enlightenment/class consciousness, in terms of organizational capacity—for the vast mass of the population, who thus strengthen themselves for further struggles, further victories. ‘The emancipation of the working class can become a total objective for the workers, warranting total risk, only if in the course of the struggle they have learned something about self-management, initiative and collective decision—in a word, if they have had a foretaste of what emancipation means.’footnote7

Why does some variant of ‘structural reform’ have particular ideological resonance in South Africa? What are the signs that this kind of ‘transitional strategy’ is emerging there? And what forces are most likely to sustain such a strategy? These are questions to which I will return, although one strand of the argument may be anticipated here. For there is still something to the notion articulated by Stephen Gelb and myself a decade ago—at the moment when the anc had begun successfully to reclaim its historic primacy within the camp of popular resistance—that ‘just as the anc is at the centre of things, so the centre of things is increasingly within the anc: the continuing dialectic between this movement and the considerable revolutionary energies at play within the society has become the single most important process at work in South Africa’s political economy.’footnote8 Nor was Robin Blackburn incorrect recently to find in South Africa, and precisely in ‘the South African udf/anc’, one of his ‘new proletarian and new left movements’ that ‘have a strong relationship to new trade unions without conforming to the old labourist model’ and that hold some positive promise of ‘transforming the historic programmes of the Left’.footnote9

However, as I argued several years ago in these pages, this reality has never been unproblematic nor free of contradiction.footnote10 Now this is all the more true. Indeed, the anc has proven to be weaker, less clearsighted, than might have been anticipated, and the dialectic between it and ‘the considerable revolutionary energies at play within [South African] society’ less straightforward than might have been hoped even some fifteen months ago. But if the anc is very far from being a ‘revolutionary vanguard’ in any familiar sense of the term, this need not mean the political process that swirls around it is without the kind of revolutionary promise Blackburn alludes to. As we will see, it is within this very swirl that one does, indeed, find the most important of the diverse centres of creativity that continue to shine out through the gathering gloom in South Africa—as well as the most likely architects of any transformed ‘programme of the Left’ there.