Mandela, Democratic Transition, and Neoliberalism: Lessons for Syria

The above interview with South African socialist Patrick Bond is a good counterpoint to some of the facile criticism of Nelson Mandela’s post-apartheid economic policies coming from a few of my socialist Facebook friends and it illustrates points about the Marxist understanding of democratic revolution that (believe it or not) are relevant to Syria.

First, it is easy to accuse Mandela of betraying the working class when the number of South Africans living on less than $1 a day has doubled from 2 million in 1994 (when Mandela became president) to 4 million in 2006 (an in-depth study of the depth and mechanics driving post-apartheid poverty can be found here).

It is much harder to grapple with how and why the masses continue to follow and support such treachery? Mandela’s party, the African National Congress (ANC), has consistently won two-thirds of the vote in every election since 1994 despite the ANC’s pro-banker anti-people policies.

Bond’s explanation for the sharp rise in poverty under Mandela/ANC rule is that pro-worker and socialist forces within the ANC were so demoralized and confused by the collapse of the USSR in 1991 that they did not put up a fight when banking and business interests pushed to ensure that the post-apartheid political and social order reflected their priorities and interests. This is true but does not get us much beyond the years of Mandela’s administration when the post-apartheid die was cast.

The unpleasant reality is that the workers’ movement in South Africa is politically impotent without a political instrument of its own. The main union federation COSATU and its nearly 2 million members remain firmly allied to the pro-business pro-management ANC and the same is true of the only radical left party with a mass following, the Communist Party (51,000 members as of 2007). There are probably half a dozen socialist sects calling for the masses and the unions to break with the ANC but none of them have gained traction. Until this constellation of forces begins to change, until the masses begin moving against the ANC and become conscious that it is not their friend, neoliberalism will continue to rule the roost in South Africa.

Now, what does any of this have to do with Syria? South Africa’s democratic transition shows:

  1. … what happens when pro-worker or anti-capitalist forces trade their independent line of thought and action for a permanent alliance with bourgeois forces. Lenin was right to advise communists to: “enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but … not merge with it, and … under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form.”
  2. … that democratic victory does not end the class struggle but clears the way for a new class struggle, a less hidden/suppressed, more open/straightforward one between capital and labor. Other more recent and relevant examples of this point:
    • In Libya, the dominant political party in the government, the bourgeois National Forces Alliance led by Mahmoud Jabril is gearing up to follow the ANC template and privatize a number of enterprises, a measure that will surely drive up unemployment and lead to greater class conflict than already exists between the former revolutionary militias and the fragile state.
    • In Egypt, ex-president Mohamed Morsi of the bourgeois Muslim Brotherhood agreed to cut spending that benefited the poor in order to obtain loans from the International Monetary Fund. Such policies decimated the 99% in the former USSR and Latin America and spawned fascism in Greece.
    • In Tunisia, where socialists are strong and unions are militant and unallied with bourgeois parties, have workers, the poor, and the unemployed won substantive gains in social policy with a public works program and unemployment benefits.
  3. … that it is entirely possible for Syria’s toiling classes to win the struggle for democracy — smashing the fascist state’s police, army, and judiciary and replacing it with elected bourgeois-democratic authorities — while losing the struggle of democracy — creating a mass-based party to contend with the petty-bourgeois salafist democrats and more mainstream bourgeois or neoliberal Islamists for popular support.democratic
  1. Not George Sabra said:

    Probably the most balanced overview of all the issues out there:

    It turns out the Communist Parties of Viet Nam and China were critical in swaying Mandela away from the old ANC stand on nationalization.“Madiba then had some very interesting meetings with the leaders of the Communist Parties of China and Vietnam,” Mr. Mboweni wrote, using Mr. Mandela’s clan name. “They told him frankly as follows: ‘We are currently striving to privatize state enterprises and invite private enterprise into our economies. We are Communist Party governments and you are a leader of a national liberation movement. Why are you talking about nationalization?’”


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