Revolutionary reform in South Africa


JEREMY CRONIN was interviewed by Green Left Weekly's FRANK NOAKES, in Johannesburg. Cronin is a member of the African National Congress National Executive Committee and a central leader of the South African Communist Party. He is the editor of the African Communist, the theoretical journal of the SACP. The interview was conducted prior to the assassination of SACP general secretary Chris Hani.

"The breakthrough at the beginning of 1990 was the key to our victory", says Jeremy Cronin, "but de Klerk used the new terrain that opened up much better than we did, probably through to the first half of last year.

"Although he had to adapt and to change his rhetoric, for us the adaptation was much more complex. We were dealing with comrades coming out of prison, often after 27 years, a substantial number of exiles, mass democratic movement people coming out of deep underground. There were a lot of different political cultures and experiences and generations; that's a great strength, but we had to find a balance of power in that dynamic."

Cronin says that some current debates "follow the fault lines of those different streams that are now the ANC.

"The de Klerk strategy within that situation worked quite well, devastatingly well actually. It was a double strategy to engage the ANC in negotiations, to prolong the negotiation process and lock up the leadership, to separate them from a constituency that would get increasingly frustrated as that leadership became more and more remote."


The other dimension was a low-intensity warfare strategy that was most effective from about August 1990 until around the middle of last year, says Cronin.

"They've hit us with two kinds of violence: a terroristic, destabilising violence, you know, you

shoot up trains or taxis; you go to a squatter camp and without any reason whatsoever, you blast up some shacks, killing women and children. That destabilises communities, makes them fearful. Two years ago if you walked around Johannesburg, you'd see people getting around in ANC T-shirts, SACP caps — people are scared of doing that now.

"The second element has been surgical assassinations; they repeatedly try to get Chris Hani, but less so people like myself sitting in offices. So once again you destabilise the ANC-supporting communities by knocking out the crucial links between the negotiators, the head offices and those communities, physically! Hardly a week goes by without a regional SACP person being assassinated or a ANC branch leader, those kinds of people."

As well, Cronin says, they were losing the propaganda war for those first few years.

"This was the success of the low-intensity war. The regime was getting away with it, both internationally and locally, with pictures of a mindless ANC-Inkatha feud, Zulu against Xhosa and so on. Once you light a few matches in a volatile situation, then it does very often acquire those characteristics."

Does the complicity in the violence go right to the top of the regime? Cronin says it doesn't really matter if de Klerk sits down once a week to figure it all out. "The point is, he knows about it."

"There's a complexity inside de Klerk's camp as well" Cronin explains. "Essentially his predecessor, P.W. Botha, modelled quite a lot of his strategy on Latin America: low intensity warfare, outright repression. He had a grand strategy and managed it in a hard-nosed way. De Klerk operates by balancing forces on the national stage and also within his apparatus: he's a consensus politician.

"His popularity soared within the country, and internationally he looked like the figure of peace, the man above the ethnic warfare. Internationally that played into all the racial stereotypes that people have. You know, they think Mandela is a very courageous guy, but he is black, and can he really run

the bloody country?"

This process began to backfire for the regime by the middle of last year. The political price of low intensity war started escalating for de Klerk; the scale of it started to get too obvious. Cronin argues that it is imperative to escalate the political price for de Klerk. "That's where the peace accord with the regime has been useful. People say 'We've signed a peace accord, but where's the peace?' That's understandable if you are getting slaughtered — but it has helped raise the political cost."

Big business

Big capital, particularly local capital, is busy giving the impression that its hands are clean, not only at present but also in the past. Cronin exposes the lie. "Business likes to rule indirectly", he says, "and if you go back to all the cornerstones of apartheid — pass laws, hostels, the migrant labour system — it was business, not the National Party, that invented them.

"But now they're hedging their bets in a whole lot of directions. Their pressures are partly impacting upon de Klerk. They want a settlement of the liberal kind, that's their project. Their favoured option is a government of national unity in perpetuity, in some form or another. They don't like low-intensity warfare very much, as it's causing too much instability and violence.

"The original idea was to drag out the negotiations, whereas now they are quite keen to settle because de Klerk's popularity began sliding very badly from about the middle of last year. They put pressure on de Klerk, and that was significant towards the end of last year.

"They're obviously probing heavily into the ANC as well, knowing that it's likely to the dominant partner, if not the sole ruling entity, in a future South Africa."

Cronin says that business is now engaging the ANC in a constant round of seminars and sketching out scenarios, "sort of 'if we're not going to defeat the barbarians, let's Romanise them'.

"A lot of that engagement is to say: 'You guys need us or there's going to be a flight of capital'. The ones whining most about sanctions are the ones shipping out; there's been a massive internal disinvestment from South Africa.

"But on the other hand, we also need to engage them. They're powerful, the day after the elections they're still going to run the economy. It's a long haul transformation process, and we've got to lock them into the reconstruction process."

Capital's economic scenario is a few "Singapores" dotted around South Africa: high tech, export oriented, micro-chips bringing in their wake the much vaunted trickle down effect. Cronin is dismissive: "It's not going to happen. I think the more intelligent ones recognise that, we're not going to compete with Singapore until we solve the problem that 60% of adults in our country can't read or write."

But he warns that business itself can't be dismissed. "We've got to actually engage them, compel them. We can't wipe them out. So it's a question of revolutionary reform, that's the challenge that we have."

Populist pressures

The complexity, the problems and the negotiations do open up space for a demagogic left — or right populist — force to emerge. Cronin concedes that members of the SACP branches are often highly sceptical about what goes on in the negotiations. However, he sees this scepticism as a strength.

"I think we started to get the formula right during the course of the second half of last year, which is: the masses of people don't want to particularly know all the detail, but they do want to know that you're not selling out, and they want to feel engaged in the process."

The problems stem from their demobilisation. People want to march in the streets and say to de Klerk: "We might be talking to you, but you're the enemy and we haven't lost sight of that". That happened in the second half of last year.

"The moment we showed ourselves as a liberation movement, negotiating yes, but also leading people into battle around issues that they understood (such as the release of political prisoners), a lot of problems went away. We've lost that again, lost that momentum; it's hard to sustain that action indefinitely, but that's the formula in my opinion."

The way to prevent demoralisation, says Cronin, who himself remains "cautiously optimistic" for the future, is to involve people.

"Where people are unorganised, never really struggled, they very often have utopian expectations of struggle. They imagine you can do all sorts of things all in one go.

"But when you are used to struggles on a shop floor or in a township or whatever, you know that you can only win when you're united, when you're struggling, and that what you win is often small piecemeal gains. But each one of those has the potential to be a platform for further advances, and that's what much of struggle is about. There are qualitative moments, but by and large the revolution isn't 'Ten days that shook the world'."

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