Is the NDR Really a Formula for Radical Change?

By Steven Friedman · 20 Nov 2014

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Picture: COSATU Secretary General Zwelizima Vavi, President Jacob Zuma and COSATU President Sdumo Dlamini courtesy GovernmentZA/flickr
Picture: COSATU Secretary General Zwelizima Vavi, President Jacob Zuma and COSATU President Sdumo Dlamini courtesy GovernmentZA/flickr

Why is an idea, which featured in Marxist debates decades ago now thrown about by all sides in mainstream public debates? Why is it used by both sides in the dispute wracking Cosatu? Because it touches on a core issue facing our society.

The idea - or slogan - is ‘national democratic revolution’ (NDR). Both those who supported Numsa’s removal from Cosatu and Numsa itself say they support the NDR - Numsa complains it is ‘not on track’ while its opponents say they are working to make it happen. The ANC also supports NDR, but, because it is anxious not to frighten those who fear revolution, it talks instead of a ‘national democratic society’. Despite this, ANC opponents on the right insist that it still supports the NDR and that this is a threat to the economy and society.

From the left to the right, then, the NDR is seen as a recipe for radical economic and social change: Numsa insists that ‘many of the major objectives of the NDR’ can only be achieved by socialism.

Is the NDR really a formula for radical change? Yes and no.

It was introduced into debates here by the Communist Party, but began life in the former Soviet Union in response to a problem for Soviet Marxism. Marxist theory said that, under capitalism, progressive change needed a social revolution led by the working class. But in Africa and Asia, people were fighting colonial rule in societies, which had hardly any working class. The Soviet Union wanted to support these fights and it needed a Marxist reason. The answer was NDR: it held that, since imperialism was, according to Lenin, capitalism’s highest stage, countries which were fighting colonialism were also battling capitalism, even if the fight was not led by workers.

This was convenient, but it left a question unanswered: if workers overthrew capitalism, they created socialism. If a ‘national liberation movement’ overthrew colonial rule, what did it create? The answer was the end of economic colonialism – the new society would not be socialist but economic power would pass from the coloniser to businesses owed by the colonised. Socialism would come later when the working class created by these changes rose up against capitalism.  

The theory didn’t really apply here: the country was industrialising and it had a large and growing working class. But, here too, NDR solved a core problem for Marxists. Their theory taught that people’s role in society was shaped not by their race but their class - by whether they were workers or bosses. And yet, in apartheid South Africa, the fight for freedom was clearly about race.

NDR declared that whites were a colonising group and blacks were the colonised. To fight apartheid was also to fight capitalism and so the Communist Party could join the ANC’s fight against apartheid without abandoning its Marxism.

Here too, Marxists who accepted NDR were not fighting to end capitalism but for a society in which white domination would end. The theorists of NDR insisted that this was a huge change because only radical measures would end white control of the economy. But again, socialism would come only once the NDR had achieved its aims; this could take a very long time.

For this reason, Marxists to the ANC’s left rejected NDR. They argued that apartheid was a racial form of capitalism: whites would dominate until capitalism was replaced by socialism. Some SA Communist Party theorists, such as Joe Slovo, toyed with the idea that apartheid’s overthrow would destroy capitalism but, unlike the ANC’s left opponents, Slovo used this to argue for the NDR and the alliance with the ANC, which was its vehicle – if a nationalist fight against apartheid would bring socialism, socialists should support it.

What does this mean for today’s debates? Contrary to the fears on the ANC’s right, those who support the NDR are not advocating socialism - at least at this stage. They are working towards a capitalism in which race has become irrelevant. Marxist critics of NDR have pointed out, with justification, that what NDR is advocating is the development of capitalism, not socialism. 

So the success of NDR is not progress in fighting poverty and inequality, but the extent to which we have moved from racial domination. Those who denounce it as a left-wing plot are saying that they want whites to remain in the economic driving seat.

But that does not get those who claim to support NDR off the hook. Despite the emergence of a black middle class, whites still dominate the economy and the professions. If the ANC still supports NDR, it would need to use the levers of the state to negotiate change with economic power holders. It still lacks this.

It also suggests that Numsa is taking liberties when it claims the NDR can only be achieved by socialism - presumably because it wants to break with it but fears alienating members brought up on the slogan. Its argument is that racial equality is impossible as long as capitalism survives - the position of ANC critics of a previous era who rejected NDR.

But the truth behind its continued loyalty to NDR may be more complicated. NDR emerged because race was far more of a factor here than socialist theory said it was. Democracy’s advent has not changed this and it is not yet clear whether Numsa is fighting for a socialism, which breaks from the NDR or for a more radical version of the change towards a fairer, less racial, capitalism that it promises. And so it may be loyal to NDR in deed as well as word.

There is another way in which NDR helps us understand events in Cosatu. It could be argued that there is a huge irony in the fact that both sides in the dispute claim the NDR because the crisis in the union movement is caused by the failure, since 1994, to move the society decisively away from the patterns of the past, as the NDR promised. Key features of the apartheid economy remain, weakening the bargaining power of workers - union leaders have been more concerned to join the elite club, which existed in 1994 than to change it. Cosatu has arguably not been a vehicle for NDR, but a symptom of its failure.

And so, as we watch the rift in Cosatu develop, the key question is whether it will trigger an attempt to break with apartheid-era patterns, which supporters of the NDR say they want or it will remain a slogan designed to score points, not a recipe for change.

** Steven Friedman’s new book, “Race, Class and Power: Harold Wolpe and the Radical Critique of Apartheid”, which discusses the NDR in detail, will be published shortly.   

Friedman is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg.

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20 Nov

Formula for Radical Change

Why are the pertinent acknowledgements being overlooked. Government and workers' needs differ under capitalism, so why all the superfluous. The elite government will never represent the workers' struggle, only in constitution, like we are helpless in preventing farm workers from being evicted by white farmers because of the constitution and government is no help. Is it the media that chooses to play the white economy and black capitalists' exploitative game by promoting irrational views that vacuums the workers struggle

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Barry Saayman
20 Nov

Part 1 - NDR is a Formula for Conflict and Regression

>>"If the ANC still supports NDR..."

This is what the ANC Resolution on "Social Transformation" of the ANC's 53rd National Conference, Mangaung, December 16-20 2012 states-

"The ANC remains remain guided and committed towards the ideals of the Freedom Charter as we work towards building a national democratic society...

That in order to realise our goals, we must continue to ensure that we implement a comprehensive programme that focuses on the war on poverty, which addresses the challenges of poverty, inequality and underdevelopment and is based on advancing and defending human rights as articulated in chapter two of the constitution Having considered the National Development Plan, agreed that it forms an important basis for the development of a long term plan to build a national democratic society that is non-racial, non-sexist, democratic, united and prosperous and seeks to advance the National Democratic Revolution (NDR).

In order to realise the strategic goals of the NDR, the ANC, must therefore continue to mobilise all the motive forces in society behind the vision of building a national democratic society, continue to promote an active citizenry and social inclusion..."

Therefore, there cannot be any doubt that the SACP?ANC and the NDR are synonyms and that the main objective of the NDR is the creation of "a national democratic society".

All the formulations/definitions of this concept (a national democratic society) avoid directly addressing the question of private property in the hands of Colonialists of a Special Kind and nationalisation / expropriation envisaged by the Freedom Charter.

>>" would need to use the levers of the state to negotiate change with economic power holders."

This is what the 2012 ANC Manguang Resolution on "Economic Transformation" states-

"1. The ANC's economic vision rests on the Freedom Charter's call that the people shall share in South Africa's wealth. Through economic transformation we intend to build an equitable society in which there is decent work for all.

2. Over the last 18 years significant progress has been made in meeting the basic needs of our people, including through the growth of the social wage and the provision of social infrastructure. However, the redistribution of economic assets, and the growth of job creating industries have not met the expectations we had in 1994.

3. Therefore, as an integral part of the second phase of our transition from apartheid to a national democratic society, we need to accelerate growth and intensify our programme of economic transformation."

The "redistribution of economic assets" is clearly required for a "transmission from apartheid to a national democratic society".

Legislation giving effect to redistribution were introduced and promulgated fragmentary, probable not to rock the boat of white capitalists.

This slow pace of NDR reform however ripped Cosatu apart and created the EFF. The NDR is rocking the national boat, whether the exponents of this ill-considered idea wish to acknowledge it or not.

The 2012 Manguang resolution on "Economic Transformation" also states-

"We intend to transform the structure of the economy through industrialisation, broadbased black economic empowerment, addressing the basic needs of our people, including women and youth, strengthening and expanding the role of the state and the role of state owned enterprises."

This sounds good but the ANC is of the opinion that the NDR and the NDP is compatible/mutually inclusive.

This is blatant obfuscation.

The NDR threatens property rights and simultaneously invite FDI. This obfuscation and dichotomy is a major threat to economic growth and job creation. Lack of trust and business confidence is the result.

To be continued...

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20 Nov

This Is Excellent

This piece and the one by Duncan, are doing essential work in clarifying important concepts in our political discourse.

Barry Saayman
20 Nov

Part 2 - NDR is a Formula for Conflict and Regression

The 2012 Manguang Resolution on "Legislature and Governance" states-

"The transformation of the state issues dealt with in this Commission on Legislature and Governance have to be understood against the background of the Strategy and Tactics document and the NDP (National Development plan) and NGP (New Growth Path).

1.2. To deepen the NDR (National Democratic Revolution), and accelerate service delivery and development, we need a stronger developmental state and a more integrated cooperate governance system. The more we build a developmental state, the more we create the conditions for a more integrated cooperative governance system. And the more we strengthen the cooperative governance system, the more we create the conditions for a developmental state..."

The future position of whites and their property is in fact, in my opinion, best judged by the ANC Strategy and Tactics document-

"22. Because the struggle against colonialism sought to eliminate most of the manifestations of these iniquitous social relations, it evolved to embrace the best in human civilisation and value systems."

The "liberation war" was against colonialism as Oliver Tambo stated in Genève.

The objective of the war was black majority rule with no place for the "enemy" that must be "destroyed" and "eliminated".

The "struggle against apartheid" was something else.

The objectives of the morally and legally astute "struggle" were, in my view, the dismantling of apartheid legislation and the end of forced race segregation as well as the reform of black-white power relations in among other the workplace.

ANC Strategy and Tactics document indeed uses strong words such as "enemy", "destroy" and "eliminate" and also explains the lacklustre performance and confusing "tactical" positions of the ANC/SACP on the road to "a national democratic society"-

"28. Colonialism of a Special Type contained within itself contradictions that could not be resolved through reform. It had to be destroyed. As such, the system we seek to create will stand or fall on the basis of whether it is able to eliminate the main antagonisms of this system...

29. A national democratic society constitutes the ideal state we aspire to as the ANC and the broad democratic movement. It should thus not be confused with tactical positions that the liberation movement may adopt from time to time, taking into account the balance of forces within our country and abroad. Circumstances in which we conduct social transformation will change all the time. And in the process of effecting such transformation, there will be successes and setbacks.

96. The liberation movement defined the enemy, on the other hand, as the system of white minority domination with the white community being the beneficiaries and defenders of this system. These in turn were made up of workers, middle strata and capitalists. Monopoly capital was identified as the chief enemy of the NDR..."

Who are the "main antagonisms of this system" and the owners of "monopoly capital"?

They better mind their step and they are, in my opinion, doing just that with disinvestment and the vacuum of profits out of SA as fast as they can, whether they want to publicly admit it or not.

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Rory Verified user
24 Nov

Systemic Causes of Inequality

Any solution to, systemically engendered inequalities in society, that does not embrace the concerns of everyone in society cannot but fail to generate conflict and animosity. This is not the best way to resolve social problems. It is based on a 'them and us' view of society which view itself springs from those very inequalities. A much better approach is to work to enroll people in a project to remove the systemic generators of inequality. One of the major generators of endemic inequality is the money system. See my blog at for a way out of this problem.

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