The ANC’s NDR fixation

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the doctrine that the liberation movement believes will usher in salvation


Comrades proselytise about the National Democratic Revolution with the same glittering-eyed zeal that Christian missionaries to Darkest Africa, a few centuries back, enthused about the Resurrection.

But the Resurrection is conceptually relatively simple. The dead will rise, they will be judged and then either ascend to Heaven to live forever in glory, or be cast to Hell to suffer.

In contrast, the tenets of the NDR are considerably more complex. According to the dogma, South Africa is characterised by a “colonialism of a special type” where whites are the illegitimate oppressors and black people are the exploited victims. Following an unalterable process proclaimed by Lenin, there are two stages to the revolution: national liberation (1994) and then an incremental shift from capitalism to socialism and ultimately communism.

Communism, like Heaven, is supposed to be humanity’s greatest state. In this new South African paradise we admittedly won’t live forever, although it unfortunately might feel like it. It will be Hell. Everything will have irretrievably turned to kak. Emigration or death, whichever comes first, will be our only release.

Of course, both the Resurrection and the NDR are just theories but are accepted by the disciples as articles of faith. Both are destined to come to fruition at an eagerly anticipated but — luckily for those who are not believers — unspecified future time. 

Given the vagueness and personal nature of both credos, they are also not the stuff of everyday conversation. However, as regards the NDR, this has not deterred the African National Congress and its Communist and trade union allies. They invoke the NDR with a regularity and fervour that the religiously devout must surely envy. 

The NDR gets a mention in almost every major presidential address, including the State of the Nation. It’s in all the propaganda issued by the party and, for all I know, forms part of the mumbled bedtime litany of every good little Comrade. 

But is this all just lip service? Is it as unlikely to happen as, say, the infinitesimally small probability that ANC leaders will stop looting and its public service cadres will start working?

For decades, that has been the view of most local commentators. Aside from a sprinkling of writers — RW Johnson, Anthea Jeffery and Rian Malan being the most gloomy in their predictions — the consensus has been that the ANC’s NDR is not a vicious shark that will take off your arm but a harmless bunny rabbit that will nibble your fingers.  

Jeffery, who is head of research at the Institute of Race Relations, has just authored Countdown to Socialism: The National Democratic Revolution in South Africa Since 1994. It’s a logical progression of an earlier title of hers, People’s War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa, first published in 2009, which presciently touched on the role of NDR ideology in the ANC-Inkatha-National Party political violence of 1984-1994, in which more than 20,000 people died, the overwhelming majority of whom were black.

In the new book, she argues that the failure of President Cyril Ramaphosa to substantively change the disastrous policies of his predecessors that have brought South Africa to the brink of collapse is not because of incompetence but rather is rooted in the fact that he is steadfastly trying to implement the NDR. According to her, the NDR is not a distant dream (or nightmare). It has methodically and sometimes surreptitiously been implemented over the past three decades, leaving millions of people unemployable and destroying the economy.

There is more pain to come. The next steps are land expropriation without compensation and “the effective nationalisation of private healthcare and pensions”. 

At this week’s launch of her book, Jeffery spoke of how “democratic socialism” has failed universally. The reality is “pervasive repression unprecedented state power and control”, from Venezuela to Zimbabwe. 

In South Africa, both the judiciary and parliament have been weakened, while cadre deployment has had dire outcomes. Instead of the country’s institutions delivering the non-racialism and broad representivity prescribed in the Constitution, they have been captured by ANC cadres who, as a matter of self-interest, owe loyalty not to the nation but to the party. 

It will be interesting to see what kind of media coverage, in terms of reviews and interviews, Jeffery gets. The mainstream media tends to treat the IRR — as it does all liberal and centre-right organisations, including AfriForum, Solidarity, the Helen Suzman Foundation, Action Society SA, the Free Market Foundation, and the FW de Klerk Foundation — in the way that lepers were stigmatised in the dark ages.  Namely, that they’re intellectually unclean and dangerously reactionary; they must be shunned for the sake of our national mental health.

Whatever one thinks of Jeffery’s premises, the arguments she puts forward in support are sturdy. While I am of the Pollyanna camp that thinks liberal fears of the NDR bogeyman are overdone — economic realities will eventually force the ANC to accommodate private enterprise, if only business leaders had the balls to stand their ground — at present the tide is undoubtedly running strongly in the NDR direction.

Take employment. President Jacob Zuma did a great deal of damage with his stringent control of labour brokers — purveyors of “slave labour”, as the tripartite alliance describes it. He virtually killed off any casual labour, which had provided a critical first step onto the jobs ladder for our large numbers of barely literate, numerate or skilled first-time workers. (And, increasingly, matric certificate and university degree holders.)

Ramaphosa has been equally ideological, or as Jeffery might put it, NDR-focused. New employment equity regulations threaten  fines of 10% of turnover for not meeting agreed racial quotas, which given the shortage of skilled labour that exists, will put many companies at risk of bankruptcy.

Another sector that mopped up workers at the lower end of the skills-scarcity totem pole, that of domestic work, is similarly in free fall. A combination of minimum wages; employment red tape; expensive minimum benefits in terms of pregnancy, leave and illness benefits; as well as growing emigration of the minorities that traditionally employed the most house-help, is cutting a swathe through those who can least afford it — most are the only breadwinners in their households — because they have no alternatives.

The trouble with the ANC’s NDR fixation is that every time things get bad, rather than revise their ideological template, they tend to double down. Lenin, like God, is all-knowing and will provide.

But, to the ANC’s apparent amazement, the growing economy that is fundamental to all the good things that we desire for our nation — cannot just be legislated. Lenin and Ramaphosa are shocked.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

Dr Anthea Jeffery’s Countdown to Socialism: The National Democratic Revolution in South Africa Since 1994 is published by Jonathan Ball