The Presidential Years

While the ANC debate was largely contained within internal structures, strong emotions in the Alliance partners brought the issue into the public domain.

The Tripartite Alliance, formalised in 1990 as soon as soon as the unbanning pf the liberation movement allowed, was foreshadowed by the Congress Alliance of the 1950s which brought together progressive political and trade union organisations of the day to strengthen the liberation movement. Then, the alliance, led by the ANC, embraced the separate Coloured People’s Congress, South African Indian Congress, the white Congress of Democrats, South African Communist Party, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), and the Federation of South African Women.

With the ANC having evolved in its organisational system to full non-racialism, and COSATU having established itself in the 1980s as the dominant trade union federation aligned with the liberation movement, the partnership became a Tripartite Alliance of ANC, Communist Party and Cosatu (later also to include the South African National Civics Organisation).

Inevitably an alliance embracing organisations with a shared goal but different constituencies and long-term objectives, would be subject to tensions at times, including differences in the understanding of the nature of the alliance itself as conditions changed. The challenge was to manage the differences in a way that ensured that the relations did not become conflictual.

The relationship of the ANC with the Communist Party had moved from hostility in the 1940s – including on the part of Nelson Mandela and the ANC Youth League – to respect and tight co-operation based on the party’s practical contribution to the struggle and some convergence in tools of analysis. An extended and heated debate amongst prisoners on Robben Island about the relationship between the ANC and the Communist Party, in which Mandela took active part, closed with the proposition that the ANC led the national struggle and the Communist Party the class struggle. As with other seeming closures of debates, the resolution left space for continuation in the future and under different circumstances.

The dimensions of what was to be the tripartite alliance’s ‘low-intensity’ conflict in the new conditions of democracy, emerged early on as differing readings of the balance of forces led to skirmishes in which Mandela was critical of the partners’ approach to the transition and the immediate tasks and possibilities. COSATU’s first national congress since the elections in September 1994 – and the Communist Party 75th anniversary congress in July 1996 – focused on the strategic imperatives of the transitional period and their implications for the Alliance. Mandela waded into these debates, dwelling on the implications of gaining political power. At the COSATU congress he spoke first of the Alliance members’ shared mission.

The ideal of a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa in which there is social equity is the mission the ANC set itself over the decades. This is the mission of our Alliance. It is a mission that should continue to guide us, no matter how steep the road and how rugged the terrain in which we have to operate.

That the broad perspectives of the Reconstruction and Development ProgrammeReconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) have become the property of the whole nation is thanks to the correctness of its content and the creative leadership of the Alliance. We are proud that organised workers have been and remain at the centre of efforts to define and realise national tasks. It is crucial that this should continue to be the case. Otherwise, what is essentially a programme to uplift the conditions of the poor, could easily be misappropriated to serve the interests of those who have all along benefitted from the system of apartheid.

This, however, cannot subtract from the strategic task of winning over various sectors of society to become part of this effort. This means, among other things, that we should broaden our horizons.

It will always be crucial for the trade union movement to play the role of a critical extra-parliamentary force. But today you also have to take active part in determining and implementing Government policy. It is fundamental that the trade union movement should jealously guard its independence. But today you also have to use, to maximum effect, the elements of political power that we have together achieved in struggle. ...

What sets this Congress apart from all others before it is the fact of the elements of political power that the democratic movement as a whole is wielding. The challenge therefore is to use this power to consolidate democracy at the same time as the union movement promotes its own interests!

In actual practice, he said, it meant strengthening the Alliance and building a partnership of all the major role-players in the economy to create statutory arrangements that deepened the rights of workers. It meant working with the same role-players for industrial restructuring to put the economy on an internationally competitive footing. That was part of the wider effort to achieve the fundamental restructuring of society envisaged in the RDP which had to be implemented in a sustainable way.

Much progress has already been made in kick-starting the implementation of the RDP. While the Presidential Projects are an important measure of this, our basic standard to gauge progress is the rate at which various departments are changing their priorities in line with the programme as a whole. Along with this, is the challenge of ensuring fiscal discipline and efficiency, so that the RDP can be implemented in a sustainable manner.755

As he concluded his address he added two points to his prepared speech.

One of the challenges that face us in this country is whether blacks can run this country successfully. … The question is, can the workers of this country go through the transformation from a liberation movement, from being a resistance movement to builders of a new South Africa? … We are in power today and the question is whether we are able to use that power to build our country, to better the lives of our people.

And that he said, required

that we look not just at ourselves, at our unions only, [that] we take into account the situation of labour throughout the country. Unless we sacrifice, unless we have that determination to tighten our belts, in order to ensure that the creation of jobs goes apace and that those people without jobs are absorbed by industry, it is going to be difficult for us to get our economy to grow. … Without us tightening our belts, it is going to be very, very difficult to solve economic questions.756

When Mandela addressed the Communist Party’s 75th Anniversary congress in July 1996, just a month after the announcement of GEAR he set out the same principles, combined with an acknowledgement of the sterling role communists had played in the struggle.

They helped give us a broader view of the world; and forged the Alliance as we have it today.

These Communists influenced us. And we influenced them too. If anyone wants to argue that they used us; we shall retort back to say we used them too!

It is this mutual enrichment that has characterised our relationship. And this is not about to change - whether it be in the ANC’s relations with the Party or with the trade union movement. There is no patronage in our Alliance. There is no trusteeship. There is none who constitutes the sole repository of ideas and wisdom. We are sovereign organisations, and none dictates to the other. ...

Ours is an Alliance that recognises the leading role of the ANC: not by mere declarations, but because it is the force that brings together all the strands, the classes, strata and groups that are the dynamo of liberation and social change. All these forces have found a home in the ANC because it represents the social and political base for real freedom, for the transformation of our society into a truly democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and united nation.

In giving leadership to this process of change, the ANC has to take into account primarily the interests of the poor: the employed and unemployed, the organised and the unorganised, the urban and rural communities. It has to promote the interests of those previously disadvantaged by the apartheid system: professionals, business-persons, students, academics and others. It should build a better life for all.

The ANC is a national liberation movement and not a sectoral organisation.

It is in this context that debate and discussion should be understood within the ranks of the Alliance. This includes discussion on the issue of the best macro-economic approach needed, in the current period, to take our country out of the quagmire of what some have described as ‘jobless growth’.

Such debate and discussion, however, should not cloud the fundamental agreement that exists in the Alliance about the Reconstruction and Development Programme, about the strategic objective that we all share to achieve a normal and prosperous society.

This requires rapid economic growth; it requires investments that create jobs; it requires restructuring of state assets; it requires that we protect the value of the country’s currency; it requires that we spend within our means as government and spend mainly in socially productive sectors; it requires that we take measures that will prevent galloping price rises; it requires that we acknowledge the realities of the world in which we live.

And it does not need computers to establish that such measures will be in the interest of the country, and particularly the poor; that the realisation of the RDP depends on these bold steps.

The Macroeconomic Strategy adopted by government seeks to achieve these objectives, so that we can have a 6 per cent rate of growth and create close on to half-a-million jobs, per year, by the end of the decade.

This strategy is government policy. Its fundamentals are not up for negotiation.

Yet we do know that such frameworks rely on assumptions based on an assessment of concrete conditions. As with the implementation of any other area of policy, if conditions change and assumptions are not borne out in practice, then a review may be necessary. Nor does the existence of policy mean that discussion around it should be forbidden, or that the details should not be debated. …

I refer to all these issues because an impression has been created that a major clash is looming in the Alliance. There is no such major clash on the horizon. The staying power of the Alliance is its ability to debate issues openly and frankly; and it is out of such debate that the best course is established. This is our experience from struggle, and it will continue to guide us into the future.

We must, however, be honest to say that, in government, there will be instances where urgent and bold decisions will have to be taken. And on that count, we shall not shirk our responsibility. We must acknowledge, too, that some of the decisions may not be popular with everyone; and on that count, we shall continue to engage all interested parties to persuade them to our point of view.

In such discussion, within the Alliance and in society in general, it would be the height of folly for anyone to seek merely to co-opt others. It would be erroneous for one sector of society to sue for the victory of a sectarian approach, at the expense of other social forces whose co-operation is critical for the success of a programme.757

Although the debate about Gear had not yet assumed the antagonistic character it later did, Mandela’s intervention at the congress probably sharpened the tension, in particular saying the policy was not up for negotiation. He had also followed his roll-call of past Communist leaders, with a pointed comment on ‘their depth of leadership which we sorely miss.’ Possibly, the exclusion of some of the influential and rising personalities in the Communist Party from executive positions in government did not help matters either.

Reflecting on Mandela’s forceful interventions, Fraser-Moleketi, who sat in senior positions in both the ANC and the SACP, attributed them as much, if not more, to impatience than substance alone.

‘His was almost impatience about getting a particular task done and seeing engagement of the larger alliance at times as an impediment, if he felt that the role they played could be slowing him down in achieving a particular outcome.’758