F.W. de Klerk’s speech of 2 February 1990, in which he announced the unbanning of the African National Congress and the other main anti-apartheid organizations, ushered in what has proved to be a complex, difficult and dangerous phase in South African history. Participants in and sympathizers with the liberation struggle have been constantly caught between the hopes raised by subsequent developments for a rapid attainment of a post-apartheid South Africa and the horror of the slaughter which has continued more or less unabated in the townships and squatter camps around Johannesburg since the Inkatha tribalist movement launched its state-supported campaign of terror against the anc in July 1990. John Saul’s article ‘South Africa: Between “Barbarism” and “Structural Reform”’ offers what is in many respects a convincing analysis of the contradictory character of the current situation.footnote1

Saul, however, extends his argument from appraisal to advocacy. As the title of his article implies, the alternative to the counter-revolutionary violence of Inkatha and the state is, he believes, a strategy of ‘structural reform’ designed gradually to move South Africa onto a socialist path. In setting out this strategy, Saul draws heavily on discussion currently under way among South African socialists. The leadership of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (cosatu), the most effective component of the Revolutionary Alliance which unites them with the anc and the South African Communist Party (sacp), has been pursuing, parallel to the talks between President de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, a series of negotiations with representatives of big business whose aim is a ‘social contract’ between labour and capital. As elaborated by its academic advisers in the Economic Trends Research Group, cosatu’s aim seems to be the adoption of a new ‘accumulation strategy’ for South African capitalism, in which investment would be concentrated on upgrading manufacturing capacity and social infrastructure, thereby making possible improvements in employment and living standards.footnote2 The implication is that, for the time being at least, socialism is off the agenda in South Africa: the best that the Left can hope for is a version of capitalism that is more efficient and more humane than the current one.

Saul’s defence of this strategy comes down, as we shall see, to the claim that it is a detour on, rather than an abandonment of, the road to socialism. But this defence involves a running polemic against a third position, one that is neither ‘barbarism’ nor ‘structural reform’ but socialist revolution. My writings are selected for what, in Saul’s eyes, can only be the rather dubious honour of representing this position. Some distortion is involved in his presentation of my views. Thus Saul denounces a ‘maximalist left scenario for the immediate deliverance of a workers’ party and a workers’ state’ (p. 44). In fact, I have sought to warn against overoptimistic expectations of immediate revolution, for example writing in 1985, at the height of the township risings: ‘The regime’s military strength means that in all likelihood it will ride out the present crisis.’footnote3 Again, Saul treats me as the prime example of those ‘ultra-leftists’ who have been ‘wondering aloud whether even meaningful reform is possible in the present conjuncture’ (p. 4). Actually, in the article he cites as evidence of this stance, I insist that ‘South Africa is already being reformed. It would be the blindest dogmatism to assert that this process cannot go any further.’footnote4

Saul’s efforts to create a ‘maximalist’ straw man obscure the real issue. Revolutionary socialists have argued, ever since Luxemburg clashed with Bernstein at the turn of the last century, not that reforms are undesirable or impossible, but that the struggle for them must be seen primarily as part of the process through which the working class develops the consciousness and organization necessary to wrest power from capital. Reformists argue that the gradual improvement of capitalist society obviates the need for a revolutionary struggle for power. Saul straddles the two positions. Following that master-strategist André Gorz, he argues that structural reforms have two characteristics which distinguish them from ‘mere “reformism”’: first, they form part of an irreversible process of change; and, secondly, a structural reform ‘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’ (pp. 5–6).

Saul offers no argument designed to show that the reforms sought by cosatu meet the first of these criteria. This omission is hardly surprising, since it is difficult to see how, in the nature of things, a particular measure could in principle be irreversible. The labour movement in Britain knows all too well how even the most basic clause of the postwar settlement—free health-care provision—has gradually been eroded by a ruling class intent on restructuring society in its interest. Saul, wisely therefore, concentrates on the second criterion. Thus he asks of cosatu’s decision to participate, along with representatives of the employers and the state, on the government’s National Manpower Commission (nmc): ‘Can such sectoral “negotiations”—an instrument of potential cooptation when conceived by South African business (and by the World Bank/imf South Africa team) in terms of their favoured outcome, a new social contract—be turned inside out and take the imprint, instead, of ever-expanding working-class empowerment?’ (pp. 37–8).

The short answer to this question must, on the available evidence, be an emphatic No. This evidence is of two kinds.footnote5 In the first place, there are the episodes where, in pursuit of an understanding with capital, cosatu leaders have restrained rank-and-file workers’ struggles. One example is the occupation between August and October 1990 of the Mercedes Benz plant in East London, which pitted leaders of the anc, sacp and the National Union of Metalworkers (numsa) against a workforce whose majority rejected the pay agreement concluded by numsa officials with car industry employers in their National Bargaining Forum. The Mercedes workers were accused of selfish sectionalism—‘factory tribalism’ in one commentator’s words—but this hardly seems accurately to describe a workforce with a formidable history of industrial and political militancy, which earlier that year had devoted unpaid overtime to building a special car for Mandela.footnote6

The reason why this case was so alarming was that it so strongly echoed similar episodes in the history of the European labour movement. These provide the second reason for rejecting Saul’s proposed strategy. He draws his conception of structural reform from a European theorist, Gorz, but never considers the fate of this strategy in Western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. The great upturn in class struggle at the hinge of those decades produced in a number of countries a radicalized workers’ movement within which ideas of structural reform gained widespread currency—in Britain, the Alternative Economic Strategy associated with Tony Benn and the Labour Left is a case in point. Yet these ideas were absorbed into a series of compromises which marked the turning point in the recent history of working-class politics in Western Europe. The Social Contract struck with the 1974–79 Labour government in Britain, the Historic Compromise between the Italian Communist Party and Christian Democracy, and the 1977 Moncloa pact in Spain: all involved the leaders of the workers’ movement agreeing to restrain their members’ militancy in exchange for political and economic concessions from capital. The latter’s promises were never kept: wages fell and unemployment rose; the resulting alienation of rank-and-file workers from their leaders helped to create the conditions in which, during the 1980s, a neoliberal offensive could be mounted, whether under the banner of Thatcherism in Britain or under that of resurgent social democracy, as on much of the Continent.