Mandela in power: a neoliberal turn

December 8, 2013
Mandela Led Fight Against Apartheid, But Not Against Extreme Inequality - YouTube/therealnews.

'Mandela led fight against apartheid, but not against extreme inequality.' Patrick Bond spoke to Real News Network on December 5. Read the full transcript.

Below, is a short extract from a much longer piece by Patrick Bond from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal that takes a detailed look at the choices facing Mandela as president, and the actions he took.

* * *

The death of Nelson Mandela, at age 95 on December 5 brings genuine sadness. As his health deteriorated over the past six months, many asked the more durable question: how did he change South Africa?

Given how unsatisfactory life is for so many people in society, the follow-up question is, how much room was there for Mandela to manoeuvre in determining the direction post-apartheid South Africa took?

South Africa now lurches from crisis to crisis, and so many of us are tempted to remember the Mandela years — especially the first democratic government — as fundamentally different from the crony-capitalist, corruption-riddled, brutally repressive, eco-destructive and anti-egalitarian regime we suffer now.

But were the seeds of our present political weeds sown earlier?

The critical decade was the 1990s, when Mandela was at the height of his power, having been released from jail in February 1990, taken the South African presidency in May 1994 and left office in June 1999.

But it was in this period, alleges former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils, that “the battle for the soul of the African National Congress was lost to corporate power and influence … We readily accepted that devil’s pact and are damned in the process.

“It has bequeathed to our country an economy so tied in to the neoliberal global formula and market fundamentalism that there is very little room to alleviate the dire plight of the masses of our people.”

Given much more extreme inequality, much lower life expectancy, much higher unemployment, much worse vulnerability to world economic fluctuations, and much more rapid ecological decay during his presidency, how much can Mandela be blamed?

South Africa won its democracy in 1994. But regardless of the elimination of formal racism and the constitutional rhetoric of human rights, it has been a “choiceless democracy” in socio-economic policy terms.

Mandela’s South Africa fit a pattern: a series of formerly anti-authoritarian critics of old dictatorships who transformed into 1980s-90s neoliberal rulers. The self-imposition of economic and development policies — typically at the behest of financial markets and the Washington/Geneva multilateral institutions — required an extraordinary insulation from genuine national determinations: in short, an “elite transition.”

This policy was justified by invoking the mantra of “international competitiveness”, and it initially peaked with the Mandela government’s 1996 Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy.

Obeisance to multinational corporations helped shape the terrain on the platinum belt that inexorably generated last year's Marikana Massacre, for example.

In the South African case, it must be stressed, the decision to reduce the room for manoeuvre was made as much by the local elites as it was by the Bretton Woods Institutions, other financiers and investors.

South Africa’s democratisation was profoundly compromised by an intra-elite economic deal that, for most people, worsened poverty, unemployment, inequality and ecological degradation, while also exacerbating many racial, gender and geographical differences.

Ending the apartheid regime was one of the greatest human achievements of the past century. However, to promote a peaceful transition, the agreement negotiated between the racist regime and Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) allowed whites to keep the best land, the mines, manufacturing plants, and financial institutions, and to export vast quantities of capital.

For there had been only two basic paths that the ANC could have followed. One was to mobilise the people and all their enthusiasm, energy, and hard work, use a larger share of the economic surplus (through state-directed investments and higher taxes), and stop the flow of capital abroad, including the repayment of illegitimate apartheid-era debt.

The other, which was ultimately the one chosen, was to trudge down the neoliberal capitalist path, with merely a small reform here or there to permit superficial claims to the sustaining of a “National Democratic Revolution.”

The neoliberal path was prefigured in the transitional years. The white ruling bloc’s political strategy included weakening the incoming ANC government through repression, internecine township violence, and divide-and-conquer blandishments offered to leaders by way of making elite pacts.

Another crucial force in the battle for hearts and minds at that time was the World Bank. Along with International Monetary Fund (IMF) visits and a 1993 loan, the Bank’s Reconnaissance Missions fused with neoliberal agencies’ strategies during the early 1990s to shape policy framings for the post-apartheid market-friendly government.

These were far more persuasive to the ANC leadership than the more populist ambitions of the 1994 Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP), which promoted pro-poor development.

The IMF and World Bank had a long history of involvement in South Africa. The Bank carefully recruited ANC officials to work with them in Washington during the early 1990s, and also gave substantial consultancies to local allies in South Africa.

The solution to the problems created by the ANC's turn to neoliberalism in power will only come when a democratic society votes for a political party — probably the one after the ANC fully degenerates and loses power (possibly after six more destructive years of rule by Jacob Zuma) — to overturn all these inheritances of apartheid capitalism.

And then, an eco-socialist and feminist perspective within a strong, but democratic state will be vital.

No one said it better than Mandela himself, when in January 1990 he wrote to the Mass Democratic Movement: “The nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC, and a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable.

“Black economic empowerment is a goal we fully support and encourage, but in our situation state control of certain sectors of the economy is unavoidable.”

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.