SASCO Congress Debates South African Revolution

"Victory is certain! The struggle continues! Amandla!" With these slogans, Jacob Mamabolo, president of the South African Students Congress, closed his political report to the organisation¥s 7th Annual Congress. The Congress, which took place at the Vaal Triangle Technikon from December 1st to December 5th, with the participation of 600 delegates and visitors, did not discuss just purely student issues, but dealt with the main debates and challenges facing the South African revolutionary movement at present.

"Victory is certain! The struggle continues! Amandla!" With these slogans, Jacob Mamabolo, president of the South African Students Congress, closed his political report to the organisation´s 7th Annual Congress. The Congress, which took place at the Vaal Triangle Technikon from December 1st to December 5th, with the participation of 600 delegates and visitors, did not discuss just purely student issues, but dealt with the main debates and challenges facing the South African revolutionary movement at present.

After the 1994 elections, in which the ANC got a landslide victory but fell short of the 2/3 majority needed to form a government of its own, a Government of National Unity was formed with the participation of all parties. A number of important democratic reforms have been introduced and most of the apartheid regime laws which denied political rights to the black majority have been abolished. Also the ANC promise of supplying the townships with electricity and running water has been largely fulfilled, although the promise to demolish the townships and build 10 million new homes instead is still largely to be implemented.

Thus we have a situation where the black majority has achieved political rights but their living conditions are still largely the same as under the apartheid regime: mass unemployment, bad housing, etc. The official unemployment figure stands at 29%, but the real situation is probably much worse. Nearly 50% of South Africans live under the poverty line, and at the same time South Africa is one of the most unequal countries on earth in terms of income distribution: the richest 10% of households receive 47% of all income while the poorest 80% of households receive only 37% of the total income.

The real power in society remains firmly in the hands of a few white-owned monopolies and some multinational companies which determine the future of millions of South Africans, thus reducing democracy to merely voting every five years.

The ANC-led government has pursued economic policies largely dictated by big business and international capitalist institutions (IMF and World Bank), including budget cuts, privatisation of water and other utilities, mass lay-offs of workers in the public sector. This has generated deep dissatisfaction within the ANC and especially with its partners in the "Tripartite Alliance", the powerful trade union confederation COSATU and the South African Communist Party.


Unfortunately, despite their strong criticisms of the government's economic policies, the leaders of COSATU and the SACP have not been able offer a clear alternative other than "expansionary fiscal policies, more intervention of the state in the economy" and other such pseudo-Keynesian recipes which have already been tested elsewhere and have been proved to be ineffective.

In the long years of the struggle against apartheid thousands of revolutionaries died fighting for a fundamental change in society, which was to be achieved by the "transferring of the wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry to the ownership of the people as a whole" as stated in the Freedom Charter. The changes that have taken place have fallen very short of that.

Only a small minority of black careerists have benefited from this new situation and have become wealthy businessmen: "While the overwhelming majority of poor, unemployed and marginalised people in our society are black, over the last few years we have seen the rapid development of a new black, upper middle-class. The gap between the richest ten percent of blacks and the majority has grown very rapidly. Many of the ANC's leading cadres have benefited from this" (Discussion documents for the ANC 50th National Conference, December 1997).

The sectors which have benefited from this process have tried to give it a theoretical justification by talking about the need to further the democratisation process by "extending it to the boardrooms" "de-racialise the economy" and "create a patriotic bourgeoisie". The wealth created by these new patriotic capitalists will then 'trickle-down' to the majority of the oppressed black population. These ideas have been met with strong opposition within the ranks of the ANC and especially of COSATU and the SACP. Many at the SASCO Congress were quite blunt about this: "a capitalist is a capitalist and is driven by the need to extract profits by exploiting workers, whatever his or her colour might be". Critics have argued that, as Lenin explained, you cannot have pure and neutral "democracy", but that the state in the last instance defends the interests of one class against the other.

SASCO's outgoing president Jacob Mamabolo, explained this by stating that "in an antagonistic society such as South Africa, there can be no power to stand above the classes, to act in the interest of the exploited and the exploiters (be they black or white). The capitalist state cannot be the state for the whole people when it promotes the emergence of yet another exploiting class (in this case black) commonly known as the patriotic black bourgeoisie, when it creates unity with private owners of capital... In this case the state is merely fulfilling its role as 'the Executive Committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie'".

In the words of Dale McKinley: "In order to fight for socialism we need an understanding that democracy cannot be neutrally conceptualised; it is not some principle upon which the oppressed can organise and lead the way to socialism, but a particular form of class rule; emanates from the very social relations and material conditions of society; and can only be fundamentally transformed through class struggle" (Links, no. 3, Oct-Dec 1994, Dale McKinley was then the political education officer of the Johannesburg Central branch of the SACP).

At the root of most of this debate lies the so-called "two-stage theory". This Stalinist theory saw the struggle of the colonial peoples as having to go through two different stages. In the words of David Masondo, SASCO's outgoing deputy president, "the 'first stage' would resolve the national question, which would not fundamentally alter the economic relations, whereas the 'second stage' was seen as a stage in which the working class would emancipate itself from capitalist exploitation". Masondo also correctly stated that "this is not a new debate, is the same that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had before the Russian revolution".

In effect, the two stage theory was originally developed by the Mensheviks as their perspective for the Russian revolution. It basically states that, since the tasks of the revolution are those of the national democratic bourgeois revolution, the leadership of the revolution must be taken by the national democratic bourgeoisie. For his part, Lenin agreed with Trotsky that the Russian Liberals could not carry out the bourgeois-democratic revolution, and that this task could only be carried out by the proletariat in alliance with the poor peasantry, expropriating the imperialists and the bourgeoisie, and beginning the task of transforming society on socialist lines.

By setting itself at the head of the nation, leading the oppressed layers of society (urban and rural petty-bourgeoisie), the proletariat could take power and then carry through the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution (mainly the land reform and the unification and liberation of the country from foreign domination).

However, once having come to power, the proletariat would not stop there but would start to implement socialist measures of expropriation of the capitalists. And as these tasks cannot be solved in one country alone, especially not in a backward country, this would be the beginning of the world revolution. This theory, fully developed for the first time by Trotsky was called "theory of the permanent revolution". The revolution being "permanent" in two senses: because it starts with the bourgeois tasks and continues with the socialist ones, and because it starts in one country and continues at an international level.


Today in South Africa many are openly questioning the validity of the "two stage" model and some have rejected it completely. Masondo further said that "the term stage might be misleading. It might be wrongly inferred that this means a postponement of the class struggle. There is a dialectical connection between the national and class questions... the national and socialist struggle are understood to merge."

In an even more surprising move, the SACP itself is openly debating the validity of the "two-stage" theory and seems to have rejected it, at least in words. The SACP's 10th Congress documents clearly state that: "an anti-capitalist class struggle cannot be held over to some later stage of our transformation process. This is why the SACP has, since our 9th Congress in April 1995 advanced the slogan 'Socialism is the Future, Build it Now!." The last COSATU Congress also reaffirmed the commitment of the mass trade union movement to the struggle for socialism, not in the long and distant future, but now.

Ironically, the SACP is now complaining that the ones who are now unconditionally defending the "two-stage" theory, are precisely those in the leadership of the ANC who are becoming capitalists themselves, and therefore argue, for their own interests, that we are still at the "democratic stage" of the revolution and all talk of socialism must be banned. Others (like Tourism and Environmental Affairs Minister Peter Mokaba) go further in the defence of their (newly acquired) class interests and affirm that the ANC is capitalist.

These changes within the SACP are clearly linked to the fall of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and the Eastern countries. The shock that this produced in the party can be summed up with the resignation of half of the Central Committee in 1990. Clearly these ladies and gentlemen gave in to the massive propaganda campaign at that time stating that 'socialism has died', 'this is the end of history', etc. But for the masses of South African workers and youth, their daily living conditions still told them that capitalism could not offer them any hope for the future. It was precisely at the same time that half the leadership of the SACP was quitting the struggle that the party was unbanned and tens of thousands of people filled membership application forms to join the party. The party could not even cope with all of them. Now the party has 80,000 members and the composition of the membership is extremely young.

In analysing the fall of Stalinism in the East, the SACP has reached the conclusion that socialism cannot be built without the democractic participation of the whole of the population. While this does not represent a complete analysis of the reasons why Stalinism was able to arise in the Soviet Union and it does not mean a full understanding of the Stalinist distortions of Marxist theory, it is a step forward from the old blind acceptance of Stalinism and it opens the way for the most advanced Communist Party members to the genuine ideas of revolutionary Marxism, of Leninism.

The documents of the SACP 10th congress recommend that "in the struggle for the renewal of the socialist project, the SACP must expose its membership and the broader mass movement to the widest range of progressive writings and theory - including to those who were often suppressed because they were considered 'dissident' - Bukharin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg".

The delegates and visitors to the SASCO conference, many of them SACP members, were certainly eager to read Marxist literature and discuss the perspectives for the South African revolution in a way which I have not seen before. The way for the best Communists in South Africa to understand the tasks ahead is to go back and study the lessons of the Russian Revolution, the reasons for the rise of Stalinism, the fatal consequences of the "two-stage" theory in the development of the colonial revolution in countries like Iraq, Indonesia, China and others. Only armed with the genuine ideas of Marxism, of Leninism, only armed with Trotsky´s analysis of Stalinism and of the colonial revolution will they be able to find a way forward for the South African revolution today.

Many of the ANC leaders have openly adopted capitalist ideas and others have become capitalists themselves, but the best traditions of revolutionary struggle of the South African proletariat remain very much alive in the ranks of the ANC, the unions, the Communist Party, SASCO and other organisations.