South Africa: waiting for the revolution

July 5, 1995

The Revolution Deferred: The Painful Birth of Post-Apartheid South Africa
By Martin J. Murray
Verso, London, 1994. 270pp., $39.95 pb
Reviewed by Norm Dixon

Martin Murray has written arguably the best book yet about the complicated series of events that followed the 1990 unbanning of the ANC and other liberation movements, and the convoluted political machinations prior to South Africa's historic 1994 elections. It succinctly sets out the array of political and economic forces that face the African National Congress-led government of national unity (GNU), and the tasks required of it should it seriously attempt to go beyond formal parliamentary democracy and uproot the legacy of apartheid.

For anybody unfamiliar with the nitty-gritty of this significant period in South African politics, the book is an essential primer.

Those who followed events closely as they unfolded will find The Revolution Deferred both an invaluable summary and an insightful attempt to set day-to-day developments of those tumultuous years against the background of the profound social, political and economic evolution that South Africa underwent in the decades preceding the 1990s. This evolution forced the white minority regime to seek a political bargain that allowed capitalism to survive the inevitable coming of majority rule.

Murray does not belittle the political significance of the passing of apartheid. In the introduction, he writes: "Having acquired full-fledged citizenship in an undivided South Africa, formerly disenfranchised people are no longer 'pariahs in the land of their birth' — as Solomon Plaatje so eloquently put it in 1913".

But he reminds us that, taken by themselves, "formal rights of citizenship do not ensure economic well-being and social advancement, political tolerance and stability, racial equality, and greater opportunity for collective escape from a social world filled with hopelessness and despair. These real-life problems are inextricably linked with class issues."

South Africa has entered what Murray believes is a protracted period of turbulent political transition and painful economic restructuring. Politics for many years will be marked by the powerful and predominantly white ruling class using every means at its disposal to maintain its economic and political power, and by the mainly black workers and poor, excluded from wealth, power and privilege, demanding a more equitable distribution of society's resources.

He points out that the "extreme disparities in property ownership and the accompanying gap between rich and poor in South Africa are structural in nature, and these inequalities rest on a solid bedrock of crystallised class power and privilege". Genuine efforts to confront the country's glaring class and racial divisions require "uprooting and immobilising entrenched power centres".

Murray warns that should the African National Congress (ANC) fail to initiate a thorough overhaul and restructuring of the state machinery, including the destruction of old apartheid apparatuses in the civil service, judiciary and security forces, the post-apartheid political arrangement "will look startlingly like what it replaced and will leave real economic power in the hands of the propertied white oligarchy".

Murray presents powerful evidence that, while the rank and file of the Congress movement remain committed to radical transformation, the ANC's top leadership is firmly committed to the free market and oriented to the small but influential black middle class. The ANC leadership is wedded to some form of class cooperation to encourage economic growth and foreign investment on big business's terms. Murray sees an inevitable clash between these conservative leaders and the ANC's militant ranks and the more class-conscious members of left organisations like the South African Communist Party.

A weakness of the book is that it was rushed into print soon after the April 1994 elections and thus was unable to scrutinise the crucial period that followed the elections. Verso should have shown a little more patience and perhaps allowed Murray another 12 months to analyse the ANC's performance in government rather than succumb to the lure of quick sales and try to compete with the several superficial "quickies" published soon after elections. Sadly, a year has passed since the elections, and Murray's observations are proving correct.

An essential chapter is the one dealing with the evolution and currents within South Africa's trade union movement and the Congress of South African Trade Unions in particular. It is particularly disturbing that, despite COSATU's leading role in overturning apartheid and a continuing willingness to engage in militant struggle, intellectuals advocating quite conservative social contract and co-determination strategies seem to be gaining an increasing hearing within many union leaderships.

The book also contains useful chapters on the South African left. Despite an obvious knowledge of the history and positions of the various organisations and personalities, however, Murray seems to have relied too much on conventional academic and press sources to discover the left's current thinking. It is recommended that this section of the book be read in conjunction with recent articles in Links magazine.

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