The National Democratic Revolution is a Fantasy

By Richard Pithouse · 24 Nov 2010

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Picture: United Nations
Picture: United Nations

These men… at the head of a team of administrators…. proclaim that the vocation of their people is to obey, to go on obeying and to be obedient till the end of time (Frantz Fanon, 1961).

Gwede Mantashe and Jeremy Cronin have both recently taken the view that the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) needs to be defended against attempts to organise outside of direct party control. We shouldn’t be particularly surprised by this development given the long history of intolerance on the part of both the ANC and the SACP for political innovation outside of their authority.  

But we do need to be clear about some things; one of which is that we are certainly not in the midst of an ongoing NDR. The idea of the NDR works in our political discourse as what the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls a ‘big Other’, an authority in the name of which power can deny the contingency of its own agency and cloak itself in the appearance of necessity or virtue.

Sometimes ‘big Others’ are actually realities of various sorts, but the NDR is one of the many ‘big Others’ that are simply fantastical. Although the actions taken in the name of the NDR are certainly real, and sometimes all too real, the NDR itself just doesn’t exist.

The NDR came into our national lexicon as one of many vestiges of the SACP’s Stalinism. It describes the view that when an immediate transition to socialism is not possible, a bourgeois dominated parliamentary democracy should be developed and defended as the first step towards a later move towards socialism.

The NDR has a sorry history as a legitimating fiction in the hands of some of the most brutal bourgeois dictatorships to have emerged in the post-colonial world.  This history is not irrelevant but democracy has long been a legitimating fiction deployed in service of American imperialism and the fact that the U.S. has bombed so many Third World peasants in the name of democracy doesn’t mean that we should throw out the idea of democracy. We need to carefully examine the actual claims being made for the NDR rather than dismissing it solely on the basis of its Stalinist provenance.

There are three basic concepts that are carried by the idea of the NDR. The first is that it is a nationalist project, which means that it will deracialise society. The second is that it is democratic and that it will steadily democratise society. The third idea is that tactical support for a ‘patriotic bourgeoisie’ will enable the development of the productive forces, usually understood as industrialisation, to the point where enough people are proletarianised and then unionised under the authority of a vanguard party to be able to force a shift to socialism.

The claim that we are in the midst of an NDR is on its firmest ground on the question of deracialisation. There are many areas of our society that have not been fully deracialised. The imperative to deracialise remains urgent and there is a real state driven project of deracialisation that is chipping away at some forms of institutionalised white supremacy and which has succeeded in opening up opportunities for a middle class life for millions of people.

But while deracialisation is a necessary part of any democratic or revolutionary project in South Africa, it is not, on its own, necessarily a democratic or revolutionary project. Karl Marx famously made the point that “The more a dominant class is able to absorb the best people from the dominated classes, the more solid and dangerous is its rule” and back in 1972 Steve Biko warned that the creation of a black middle class could be an effective way to legitimate the ongoing oppression of the majority in a post-apartheid South Africa.

For the claim that we are in the midst of an NDR to make any sense, deracialisation would have to be woven into a real project of democratisation. But no one in his or her right mind could seriously claim that our society is democratising.

From Chancellor House to the attack on the media, the degeneration in the language of political engagement, the blatant absorption of service delivery into systems of party political patronage, the return to political assassination and police torture, the repression of independent poor people’s movements and the sheer brutality of our prisons and of our treatment of migrants and the urban poor, it is quite clear that our society is rapidly becoming more authoritarian.

The fictional nature of the NDR is rendered equally stark by the realities of the bourgeoisie that the ANC has created. Moletsi Mbeki has often made the point that we are in fact deindustrialising and argued that the ANC’s approach to deracialising the economy is a key factor in this process.

Given that the broader left in the ANC draws it’s only real organisational power from the unionised working class and has systematically failed to organise the rural and urban poor, the reality of deindustrialisation is hardly compatible with the narrative of an NDR in which there is a steady accumulation of proletarian power.

This is compounded by the fact that when poor people have organised themselves to assert their own interests within the framework of broad support for the ANC, the party has, instead of welcoming this development, reacted with such rank paranoia and authoritarianism that it has driven them into resolutely independent movements or opposition parties.

This does not add up to an NDR steadily unfolding under the wise guidance of a vanguard party. On the contrary, it adds up to a society that is deracialising at the same time as it is becoming more authoritarian and exclusionary. Anyone who doubts this conclusion should take a look outside their window where they’ll see that all of this is being physically concretised in the structure of our cities with their gated communities, fabulous shopping malls, cracked and leaking RDP houses, transit camps and shacks and abundance of razor wire.

The idea that we should all be patient and obedient because the NDR is being deepened, consolidated, extended and defended is nothing but an ideological move deployed in the name of a fiction to silence dissent at a time when dissent is entirely necessary.

This doesn’t mean that we should accept the arguments of those people who have argued that it is time to forget the NDR because they want to finally overcome the politicisation of our society so that we can become a more ‘normal’ society. The real demand that is being made in these arguments is that domination and exclusion should be normalised while society is run by the market and technocrats. This anti-political argument is fundamentally elitist and anti-democratic and Mantashe and Cronin would be quite right to describe it, as they surely would, as irredeemably reactionary.

But our choices are not limited to faith in NGO based civil society or loyalty to an imagined NDR. We should remember that our democracy was won by, more than anything else, the actions of ordinary women and men in trade unions and community organisations. What we need to really break the logjam in our politics is the constitution of multiple sites and modes of popular and democratic organisation that can counter the entrenched power of elites in the market, in the state and in civil society.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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4 Dec



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Ruhannah Y
19 Feb

Brilliantly, Incisive Intelligence at Work!

Thank you, Richard Pithouse for shining the torch of truth on the murky lies, obfuscations, and decietful posturings of parasitic, predatory people who make themselves comfortable draining the resources of the nation, and living off the blood of the suffering multitudes. ... many of these people ran off to do phd's abroad, and then they came back, after the battles were fought, to occupy positions of power that their so called 'expertise'qualified them in....

While those with love for justice and human rights for all, , broke their backs pulling apartheid's tentacles out of the structure of society, this brand of parasites have jostled to occupy the same niches and have the same goal as their predecessors: fealthering their own nests, at the expense of everybody else.

To the person making the 'comment' above, if you can't respond intelligently to intelligence, why don't you just keep your display of stupidity to yourself? You certainly don't convince anyone that Pithouse is incoherant , though that is what you may be wishing to imply.

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