On taming a revolution: the South African case

John S. Saul


Any sober strategy for realizing progressive, let alone socialist, goals from the promising drama of the new struggles emerging in South Africa must necessarily begin with an interrogation of South Africa’s disappointing path to the present. Such an interrogation must, of course, be done with care. For one does not want to trivialize in any way that which, with the overthrow of apartheid, has been accomplished: the defeat of a bankrupt and evil system of institutionalized racism, a system entirely worthy of its consignment to the global scrapheap of history. Yet in what now looks like a classic case study of how to demobilize a potential revolution, the African National Congress (ANC), working with its new allies, both domestic and foreign, has succeeded in integrating South Africa firmly into the broader world of global capitalism.

As South Africa entered its key transition years (from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s) it would have been hard to imagine that a bald swap of apartheid for the country’s recolonization within the newly ascendant Empire of Capital could ever be seen as being a very impressive accomplishment. Yet it is just such an outcome that has occurred in South Africa, one that has produced – alongside some minimal narrowing of the economic gap between black and white (as a result, primarily, of a small minority of blacks moving up the income ladder) – both a marked widening of the gap between rich and poor (the latter mainly black) and a failure to realize any substantial progress towards tangible ‘development’ and meaningful popular empowerment. It is precisely this recolonization of South Africa, occurring on the ANC’s watch, that forms the context within which the left in that country now seeks to regroup and to struggle.

In this essay, then, we are left to pose some sobering questions about the country’s very transition away from apartheid: what kind of liberation has really occurred in South Africa anyway? How has what happened been allowed to happen? And how has the ANC managed, thus far, to get away with it?

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