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Publication Details

Reference
Guy, Jeff  (2004) Somewhere Over the Rainbow. The Nation-state, Democracy and Race in a globalising South Africa. UKZN History Department : 1-20.

Summary
The South Africa of the 1980s might well be described as Hobbesian. In spite of the enormous power at its command, the South African government was unable to implement effectively a system of authoritarian racial overrule which had its roots in colonial dispossession, had been extended by imperial conquest, and which reached its height in the last half of the last century in an attempt to implement racial segregation through ethnic differentiation by means of a statesystem known as apartheid. By this system a racial minority of about an eighth of the population sought to keep control of political power, land and resources, using increasingly authoritarian measures. By the 1980s however apartheid was being severely challenged. The subordinated racial majority was in the streets in open defiance of the state. The organised black working class in conjunction with a vast number of those (the young in particular) for whom the existing system offered nothing but further impoverishment and humiliation was increasingly vocal and militant. Confronted Internally by this Mass Democratic Movement MDM) the South African authorities were also under external pressure not only from the exiled liberation movement led by the ANC which kept up the pressure for revolutionary change, but by international opinion which sought to use financial sanctions to rein in the racial excesses of the apartheid state. Already burdened by intense structural weaknesses the economy slowed then went into severe recession.

The governing party mixed tentative reforms with vicious attempts to fragment and crush the opposition internally, and weaken it externally through military violence. But locked within an inflexible set of ideological and economic constraints it could do nothing to slow the spiral of increasing violence which only made more obvious its incapacity to find a solution within existing structures. It was a time of heightened emotions: of exhilaration as the oppressor was at last confronted directly by the masses, driven on by the hope of liberation; it was also a time of horror as the apartheid state lashed out at those who threatened it and the nightmare of all-out racial civil war appeared increasingly likely.

Then, at the last moment, as the 1980s drew to a close, the combatants looked into the abyss – and drew back. Liberal elements within South Africa, joined by elements from governing circles, with big capital heavily involved, made contact with the exiled liberation movement. Gaoled political leaders were approached, and drawn into the process. In February 1990, after 30 years of banning, the major political organisations were legalised, and their leaders released. Negotiations began between these divided South Africans. They now included representatives of the apartheid government under F. W de Klerk, South African business interests, white opposition parties, and the liberation movements of which the African National Congress was by far the most dominant, and was soon joined in alliance with the South African Communist Party, and organised labour (COSATU). Also represented were African organisations which had grown up under the apartheid system, the most significant being the Zulu nationalist movement, Inkatha.

From 1990 to 1994 these disparate groups, representing the widest range of interests, negotiated a new constitution for South Africa and the steps to be taken for its implementation. Both sides had to make major concessions. De Klerk began the process with the intention of retaining substantial white power – a position he was forced to abandon. The liberation movement had to give substance to rhetoric and moved away from many of its historical positions including the vague but influential references to acquisition of land and resources by the expropriated struggling masses. The negotiations were carried out against a background of violence which at times seemed to threaten the whole process: on one occasion the negotiating chambers themselves were forcibly entered by a disaffected right-wing group: it is estimated that while the negotiations were in progress some 14 000 South Africans were killed. But, in the end, the process was sustained, with both sides agreeing to work for a multiparty democracy in a unitary state, a bill of rights, a mixed economy, the entrenchment of existing property rights and ‘sunset clauses’ to allow social and economic continuity.

The legitimating legislation for the new constitution was in place by the end of 1993. A Bill of Rights and a Constitutional Court were established to protect the rights of individuals and minorities. A Government of National Unity controlled by the political parties taking the first three places in the country’s first democratic election would hold power. On 27 April 1994 the people of South Africa went to the polls. The ANC in alliance with COSATU and the SACP won an overwhelming victory gaining 62.6% of the votes.

The photographs of queues of people waiting to vote in the first election have become iconic. Given South Africa’s history of racial division, economic exploitation and violence the election was the ‘small miracle’: a unified South African nation with a liberal-democratic constitution forged by South Africans in order to escape from the vicious cycle of destructive racial and ethnic violence. Nelson Mandela became the world symbol of strength through tolerance: the non-racial, multi-cultural spirit of the achievement of the early 1990s was captured by the phrase associated with Desmond Tutu – South Africans had created a ‘rainbow nation’.

It is not to denigrate the enthusiasm of the times or the significance of the achievement to note that in the decade of hard politics which has passed since liberation, the phrase ‘rainbow nation’ – dimmed by politicians seeking a mobilising slogan, copy writers seeking commercial opportunity, and sentimental wishful thinking - has lost its lustre. The fact that the settlement was a negotiated compromise meant that all parties, but especially those on the left and the right, had had to sacrifice essential elements of their thinking. Furthermore, perforce, elements of the old system were retained resulting in awkward continuities between the old racial system and the new unitary democratic one. Critics from the left assert that in its fundamentals the ruling party has not just failed to change crucial aspects of the old system but that its policies have reinforced some of its most exploitative features. The negotiations were carried out at a political level, largely over the nature of constitutional change. What was insufficiently attended to was the nature of the economic situation and the direction that a reformed and democratic South Africa should take in order to bring direct material benefit to its peoples. As a result, while the decade that has passed since the first elections has brought political liberation within the boundaries of a democratic state, it has not brought material relief to the majority of South Africa’s people. Indeed, it has been argued that the exploitation of South Africa’s poor has not just continued but has been intensified by a post-liberation generation of the new non-racial privileged – successfully ‘talking left and walking right’, asserting a continual record of the achievements of liberation and promising radical amelioration of economic conditions but in fact failing to break with the past on substantial, material, issues. While the essentials of the racist apartheid system were gone or unrecognizable in the new South Africa – the structural underpinnings continue, economically exploitative and socially discriminatory.

Prominent amongst the defences mounted by the new rulers is of course the nature of the settlement: compromise was necessary given the conditions which had developed in South Africa by the 1980s and some principles had to be sacrificed in order to create the conditions necessary to begin a process of fundamental reform – sacrifices the effects of which are now being addressed and reduced. But the essence of the left critique is not primarily focussed on the period of negotiations – but in the period that followed immediately after the electoral victory of 1994. It was then that the government accepted policies and strategies which reflected the demands of prevailing economic orthodoxy – the so-called forces of globalisation. And it is this which links this paper with the major theme of the conference – the fate of the democratic nation-state in a global world – and allows me to present recent South African history as a case study.

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