Does South Africa still have room for the sunset clauses?

Thando Ntlemeza says apartheid patterns of economic ownership still endure (Dec 2011)


The arrival of Jan Van Riebeeck in 1652 marked the beginning of colonial settlement in South Africa. This was followed by complex battles and wars for their survival and dominance. While they fought among themselves at particular intervals, these colonial settlers fought bloody battles with African people who refused to allow dispossession of their treasured land and livestock without putting up a fight.

With the defeat of Bhambatha rebellion in 1906 which symbolized defeat of armed resistance that was waged by various African Kingdoms, African people became exposed and subjected to oppression, economic exploitation and suffering of unprecedented proportion.

While apartheid as an official policy gained prominence after the 1948 victory of the National Party, oppression and exploitation of the people long preceded de jure apartheid. This situation forced the oppressed people to engage in the struggle to liberate themselves from oppressive and exploitative colonial system. Their liberation struggle assumed different forms at different times.

After the merciless killings in Sharpeville and other areas on March 21, 1960, the oppressed people were convinced that prospects of negotiations and peaceful settlement of the South African question were non-existent. For them, it was no longer necessary to continue talking the language of peace and non-violence with the regime whose reply would be violent attacks on the unarmed people. This is the context within which Umkhonto we Sizwe was formed and engaged in the armed struggle.

However, resort to the armed struggle never changed the political character of the liberation struggle as Umkhonto we Sizwe was accountable to the political leadership of the ANC. Which shows that armed struggle was an instrument aimed at forcing the apartheid regime to the negotiation table because the ANC always believed in a political solution.

The ANC abandoned armed struggle when the apartheid regime was ready to negotiate a political solution for the South African question. However, some comrades argued at the time that elevation of negotiations reoriented the movement away from confrontation with the enemy to a search for common ground (1). This cannot be accepted because our revolutionary movement only resorted to the arms when the prospect of peaceful settlement vanished, while it was the failure of the arms that imposed the obligation on the apartheid regime to concede the need for the negotiations (2).

Apartheid economy

For many white South Africans, negotiations for a democratic South Africa were necessary as apartheid economy was on the brink of total collapse. For them, central in the negotiations would be a model of democracy that would guarantee retention of their economic privileges and dominance as captains of many industries going forward. How were these privileges and dominance acquired and developed?

The system of apartheid colonialism was deliberately and systematically designed and structured to create and sustain the apartheid economy through a stream of cheap labour for all the sectors of the apartheid economy. Africans and other black people were not only excluded from governance, but also from the main stream economic activities and structures of ideological influence. In this regard, Sam Nolutshungu states that:

Systematic exclusion from key economic positions, from effective political power and from major ideological structures and activities also reduces the class competences of the sections concerned, both technically and socially (3).

While the job reservation system reserved skilled jobs for white people, the system of Bantu Education was purposely designed to direct African people into unskilled jobs. This demonstrates that the apartheid political economy was one of white wealth and black poverty resulting from high structural unemployment of the black majority. Hence, Cosatu noted that:

while Africans make up 76% of the population, their share of income amounts to only 29% of the total. Whites, who make up less than 13% of population, take away 58.5% of total income (4).

With the economic subjugation of the majority of South Africans and the imposition of inward-looking economic policies of the apartheid regime that included protectionist policies aimed at limiting the impact of economic sanctions on white business; the liberation movement was expected to enter negotiations for a democratic South Africa determined to fundamentally change racial and gender inequalities in our society.

In the main, our revolution purports to resolve racial and gender inequalities. Put differently, it "does not seek to eradicate capitalist relations of production in general", [but] ... the specific relations of production that underpinned the national and gender oppression and super-exploitation of the majority of South Africans".(5)

However, some within the liberation movement believe that national and gender contradictions cannot be completely addressed without fundamental reconstitution of class relations in society." (6) In other words, [they believe that] the goals of the national struggle cannot be realized without the locomotive of the class struggle." (7)

While class contradiction remains fundamental in our society, resolving this contradiction cannot be a precondition for resolving national and gender contradictions that are manifest in our society. In our view, resolving national and gender contradictions create conducive conditions for resolving class contradiction as engendering class consciousness and advancing class struggle would be difficult in a racially divided and patriarchal society.

In a journey, alternative routes may be chosen to reach the same destination. However, in a revolution, choosing alternative routes has to be based on correct analysis of the situation as failure to correctly analyze the situation may present serious problems for the revolution. On which revolutionary theory has the movement relied in making situational analysis or in making tactical responses to difficult situations that could disrupt the revolution?  

Lessons and inspiration from Lenin?

Without necessarily advocating for total retreat in a revolutionary struggle, Vladimir Lenin introduced the notion ofcompromise in revolutionary politics. For him, compromise is necessary in a revolution, especially in situations that require flexibility and pragmatism. However, he believed in creating room for compromise only when compromise would take the revolution forward. Lenin-inspired Marxists and revolutionaries throughout the world continue to be inspired by Lenin's flexibility and pragmatism.

Having had benefit of Lenin's approach, revolutionary politics emphasize importance of flexibility and pragmatism in advancing and achieving revolutions.(8) This is the perspective from which South African people and others must understand the adoption of the sunset clauses by the liberation movement.

Informed by Lenin's thesis of tactical retreat, liberation forces understood that:

There are, however, certain retreats from previously held positions which would create the possibility of major positive breakthrough in the negotiating process without permanently hampering real democratic advance. (9)

Viewed from the angle of Lenin's thesis of tactical retreat, adoption of the sunset clauses was a tactical ploy which was aimed at taking the negotiating process forward, without necessarily abandoning the long term objective of the liberation struggle.

What were the objective conditions that led to the adoption of sunset clauses?

When South Africa was ungovernable and apartheid was unworkable; the apartheid regime was forced to go to the negotiation table to discuss with the liberation movement the way forward in terms of liberating the majority of South Africans who had been oppressed and exploited for many decades. In fact, ungovernability "did not mean that the power of resistance was able to defeat the enemy on the battlefield" (10), hence it was necessary for the liberation movement to negotiate.

Serious discussions ensued until the process reached a political log-jam. With the proposals making a sobering call for the liberation movement to face the realities that the apartheid regime had not been defeated in the battlefield and that its base in the security forces, bureaucracy and the economy largely remained in tact; the movement began to appreciate that compromise on contentious issues had to be reached to break political log-jam.

For some, transition based on compromise represented a "selling out" of the revolutionary cause for which the liberation struggle had been fought, a view which was advocated by some within our movement. (11) Hence, some believe that:

...in the culture of liberation traditions the word compromise is often associated with a "sell out" deal, while regimes with state power consider compromise as a sign of weakness". (12)

Viewed from the perspective of Marxism-Leninism, the above criticism of compromise cannot be accepted because it may be necessary at times to make tactical retreats to achieve the ultimate objective - a route that was chosen by the ANC during a difficult process of negotiations. (13)

Evident during the process of negotiations was the fact that representatives of apartheid regime sought an outcome that would leave many elements of the apartheid system intact. (14) To them, sunset clauses had to retain white power in form of -

the accumulated, palpable privileges that the whites... enjoy in terms of ownership and control of productive property; domination of the professions and high levels of skill; control of the commercial and financial sectors of the economy; access to the best facilities in terms of education; access to and domination of the civil service and control over the decisive organs of the state." (15)

Have sunset clauses taken us forward?

With the breakthrough resulting from the sunset clauses, South Africa reached a significant turning point. Despite this, these clauses did not take us far in terms of fundamentally transforming the apartheid economy, something which made some people to down-play the breakthrough and claim that the negotiated settlement brought only about superficial change which does not change the quality of life of the people.

We would remember that at the time of adopting these sunset clauses it was envisaged that white capital would contribute in the efforts to liberate blacks in general and Africans in particular from economic bondages. However, except the guarded mentorship programmes and ventures mainly intended to continue benefitting themselves white businesses do not appear to have assisted historically disadvantaged people to take ownership and control of means of production. Instead, some have gone to an extent of making it their business to problematise the historically oppressed people's accumulation of economic resources in the private sector as well as in those areas of the economy over which they have no control, thereby demonstrating their consistent determination to deny historically oppressed people their economic liberation.

While some have glorified black economic empowerment for producing black business people in our country, this empowerment project failed to benefit the historically oppressed people broadly. Neither have material and other resources accumulated through the project have meaningfully contributed to the developmental agenda of the democratic state.

In reality, black economic empowerment created new generation of black business elite without substantially increasing the number of black people who own, control and manage significant and strategic sectors of the South African economy, thereby leaving apartheid patterns of economic ownership and control and structure of production intact.

Sam Nolutshungu reminds us that the political and ideological superstructures derive from the structure of production, but are also conditions for the existence of that structure. (16) In our case, apartheid structure of production remains intact and continues to determine political and ideological superstructures, while these superstructures sustain reproduction of the apartheid structure of production in the current conjuncture.

Worsening the situation is the unfortunate tendency in the private sector to informalize the jobs, contract out and utilize labour brokers - a tendency that has seriously undermined the quality of jobs, job security, and union activism in the affected sectors. (17) Be that as it may, negotiated settlement restored human dignity to black people in general and African people in particular. (18)

Reflecting on Zimbabwe sunset clausesSankie Mthembi-Mahanyele stated that the effect and impact of these clauses was to slow down transformation of the state and property relations.(19) Same could be said about South African sunset clauses. Given this objective reality, can we give credence to a view that in adopting the sunset clauses the ANC was not riding into the sunset, but was "building its own funeral pyre."?

Without necessarily overlooking or downplaying the real challenges presented by the sunset clauses to the people of South Africa, we should remember that at the time of the negotiations for a democratic South Africa, especially when concessions were made; the liberation movement was very much alive to the reality that "the immediate outcome of the negotiating process will inevitably be less than perfect when measured against our long-term liberation objectives." (20)

Were sunset clauses meant to be permanent?

In general, sunset clauses are regarded as a transitional arrangement. In essence, this means that sunset clausesconstitute a compromise which is meant to exist and operate for a fixed period. In confirming this, Lebogang Seabelosays:

[a] compromise in political terms is not permanent but is rather considered a tactical retreat informed by the balance of forces. (21)

Like other sunset clauses ours were meant to be transitional. However, lifespan of the sunset clauses may be extended when objective conditions justify the extension. Be that as it may, this extension does not appear to have been debated at the time of negotiations or anytime thereafter. What always existed is the possibility of re-opening debate on thesunset clauses as Seabelo argues that "It has been one of the salient and unwritten rules ... that the discussions around the sunset clause will be open." (22) He makes this argument "because the ANC negotiators at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) in 1991 acknowledged that part of their negotiating mandates were not met, due to the political climate at the time." (23)

However, certain sections in our society continue to mislead people to believe that the sunset clauses were meant to be a permanent arrangement which would be part of our constitutional democracy forever. Those who propagate for their permanent existence are merely mischievous and self-serving individuals who must not be taken seriously.


Despite the challenges that still remain at political, economic and social levels; sunset clauses opened room for negotiating the future of South Africa. They created "the possibility of bringing about a radically transformed political framework in which the struggle for the achievement of the main objectives of the National Democratic Revolution will be contested in conditions far more favourable to the liberation forces...". (24) In particular, the sunset clauses created a possibility for democratic elections and democratic governance.

Indeed, our country witnessed the first democratic elections in 1994 and since then many political and socio-economic victories have been secured. This means that thesunset clauses have taken us forward in terms of deepening, consolidating and advancing the National Democratic Revolution.

However, the sunset clauses also left our country with a legacy of political economy characterized by a black controlled state and white-owned economy as well as continued mass poverty of the historically disadvantaged sections in our society. (25) In other words, "while progressive forces have attained political power, economic power remains largely in the hands of white minority." (26) For this reason, Ngoako Ramatlhodi says "apartheid forces sought to and succeeded in retaining white domination under a black government." (27) But, this does not mean that there has been no progress.

Despite the progress we have made thus far, South Africa still has high levels of unemployment and mass poverty in communities of the historically oppressed. However, roots of these challenges are to be found in the apartheid economy. This situation continues to strengthen the bargaining power of white capital because shortage of jobs and uncertainty of employment serves as a disciplining tool over workers, majority of who are blacks in general and Africans in particular. Given the persisting challenges of unemployment and poverty in our country, South Africa requires interventions that will benefit all the people, especially the historically marginalized.

In making better for all a reality for the poor and marginalized sections of our population, the democratic government is supposed to deliver services to these people because the imperative of the liberation struggle demands that we do not any longer postpone execution of the task of improving quality of people's lives. However, that should never be (mis)understood to mean that debate on transformation is no longer necessary or legitimate. While service delivery is imperative, let us be careful of those who masquerade as genuine advocates of service delivery, whereas they are hell-bent on shifting focus away from transformation discourse as they do not want anyone to talk about subjects which have a potential to temper with their ill-begotten privileges.

Therefore, as and when we engage on the equally desirable discourse on service delivery in our country, we must not engage in that debate at the expense of fundamental transformation of South African society as more still needs to be done to fundamentally transform all sectors of our society, especially the economy, to ensure that all the people of South Africa benefit from the economic resources of the country.

With apartheid patterns of economic ownership and control still manifesting themselves in our society, reopening debate on issues of fundamental transformation of our economy must have become desirable. Silencing those who raise debates on these issues will not assist the country in the medium to long term, but will in the short term benefit those who own means of production. Hence, they rejoice whenever internal organizational processes, in effect, silence those whose utterances threaten their ownership and control of means of production.

Despite disparities that continue to characterize our society, let us promote a sense of nationhood. This requires all of us to emphasize that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white and that all South African people must feel part of its political, economic and social life.

However, I do not believe that leaving the current patterns of economic ownership and control intact will help us realize the vision of building a united, cohesive and stable society. Instead, it will create an environment that is conducive for racial suspicions, mistrust, tensions, divisions, disunity and societal instability of unprecedented proportion.


1) An edited version of a paper by Dr Pallo Jordan (the then ANC National Working Committee Member) which appeared in The New Nation, 13 November 1992 
2) Thabo Mbeki, who is quoted in Mayibuye, 30 November 1992
3) Sam Nolutshungu (1982) Changing South Africa: Political Considerations at p.52
4) Quoted in Richard Knight at p.1
5) ANC Strategy and Tactics, 2007, at para 58
6) African Communist, 2nd / 3rd Quarter 2003 at p.41
7) African Communist, 2nd / 3rd Quarter 2003 at p.46
8) Thando Ntlemeza "Now is not the time to go it alone" Umrabulo 30, November 2007
9) Joe Slovo "Negotiation: What room for compromise?" African Communist 130, Third Quarter, 1992
10) Raymond Suttner "The Zuma era in ANC history: New crisis or new beginning?" Concerned Africa Scholars Bulletin, No. 84 Winter 2010 (12 - 33) at 16 
(11) James Hamill "A new deal for South Africa" in Contemporary Review, May 1993
12) Rev Frank Chikane (former Director -General). Address on the transformation process in South Africa in Ethelburga's Centre, London, 7 July 2004.
13) Ibid.
14) ANC Strategy and Tactics, 2007, at para 67 
15) An edited version of a paper by Dr Pallo Jordan, which appeared on The New Nation, 13 November 1992 
16) Sam Nolutshungu at 48
17) ANC Strategy and Tactics, 2007, at para 82
18) Christopher Saunders "The transition in context"
19) Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele "Moving forward to a prosperous and democratic Zimbabwe." ANC Today Vol. 5 No. 12, 25 March 2005 
20) Joe Slovo "Negotiation: What room for compromise?" African Communist 130, Third Quarter, 1992
21) Lebogang Seabelo "Imbizo - My Debate: The sunset clause was open for far too long" Comment and Analysis, The New Age online 
22) Ibid.
23) Ibid.
24) Joe Slovo "Negotiation: What room for compromise?" African Communist, 130, Third Quarter, 1992
25) Dr Neo Simutanyi - Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture delivered in East London, 26 October 2006
26) ANC Strategy and Tactics, 2007, at para 79. Even the Medium Term Vision of the SACP states that the economic power still remains with the same capitalist class - See African Communist 2nd /3rd Quarter 2003 at 42. 
27) Times Live, 1 September 2011

This paper first appeared in the ANC journal Umrabulo, Number. 37, 4th Quarter 2011

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