What is the National Democratic Revolution?

Anthea Jeffery | May 31, 2021
The National Democratic Revolution (NDR) is the key to understanding developments in the country since 1994 – yet most South Africans know little about it. This is partly because the NDR has so many diverse strands that it is difficult to connect the dots. More telling still is the general media silence about the NDR and the reluctance of most commentators to acknowledge its importance.

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What is the National Democratic Revolution?

Why the NDR matters  

The National Democratic Revolution (NDR) is the key to understanding developments in the country since 1994 – yet most South Africans know little about it. This is partly because the NDR has so many diverse strands that it is difficult to connect the dots. More telling still is the general media silence about the NDR and the reluctance of most commentators to acknowledge its importance.  

The NDR strategy is also so destructive – and its socialist and communist goals so outdated and illogical – that most people find it hard to believe the ruling party could truly be committed to it. However, from the viewpoint of the African National Congress (ANC) and its dominant South African Communist Party (SACP) ally, the NDR has a powerful ideological appeal. It also offers the most effective way for the revolutionary alliance to entrench itself in power.  

What the NDR means 

The NDR is a Soviet-inspired strategy which seeks to provide ‘the most direct route to socialism’, as the SACP puts it. Socialism, in turn, is ‘a transitional social system between capitalism...and [the] fully classless, communist society’ which is the final NDR objective. 

The NDR derives from the ‘two-stage’ theory of revolution developed by Lenin to drive a wedge between the European imperial powers and their Asian and African colonies. The first of Lenin’s stages required a given colony to achieve national liberation from colonial rule. The second involved a gradual shift within that newly independent country from an inherited capitalist system to the socialism and then communism supposedly needed for true political and economic freedom. 

In South Africa, the first stage ended when the SACP/ANC alliance took power in 1994. This put an end to the rule of the white minority, or the ‘colonialism of a special type’ (CST) that had previously applied. (This idea of a ‘special type’ of colonialism was needed partly because South Africa had gained independence from Britain as far back as 1910, but mainly for the ideological reasons outlined below).  

The democratic ‘breakthrough’ achieved in 1994 paved the way for the second stage or the NDR. This, in keeping with Lenin’s strategy for total emancipation, aims to take South Africa from a predominantly capitalist economy to a socialist and then communist one.  

A gradual programme with largely hidden goals 

When the NDR began in 1994, some 70% of the South African economy had long been in private hands and there was little popular enthusiasm for communism – especially given the Soviet Union’s collapse some three years earlier. The NDR therefore had to be implemented by slow and incremental steps and over a period of some 30 to 40 years.  

Many of the key policy shifts to be achieved are set out in the 1955 Freedom Charter. According to the SACP, full implementation of the charter will in time ‘lay the indispensable basis for the advance to socialism’. In the interim, the charter helps build support for socialist ideas, such as the ‘re-division’ of the land and the nationalisation of mineral wealth, banks, and ‘monopoly industry’.  

The core CST notion 

Particularly vital to the NDR is the notion of ‘colonialism of a special type’ or CST. According to this concept, South Africa’s white minority is an illegitimate colonial oppressor while the black majority is its exploited victim. White prosperity or ‘privilege’ thus has nothing to do with education, skills, entrepreneurship, or technological advance. Instead, it derives solely from the ruthless oppression of the black majority. This exploitation began with Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape in 1652 and persisted until 1994, when the political transition formally ended this colonial injustice – but not its continuing consequences.  

The CST concept, though deeply flawed, permeates the thinking of the SACP/ANC alliance. It provides the key rationale for stripping whites of their supposedly ‘stolen’ land and other assets and so changing the ownership, control, and structure of the economy. It also helps divert attention from the fact that black property ownership is to be terminated too as the NDR proceeds. This is because, as Karl Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto in 1848, ‘the theory of the Communists may be summed up in one sentence: abolition of private property’.  

NDR implementation 

Since 1994 the NDR has been implemented in two phases: an initial and primarily ‘political’ phase and a second ‘socio-economic’ one, which is now well in train. In the ‘political’ phase, the ANC’s main focus was on strengthening its grip on power and eroding constitutional checks and balances. This was necessary to reduce resistance to the socio-economic policy shifts that would predominate in the second phase: when seemingly mild interventions introduced in the first phase would be ratcheted up, often sharply.  

The first phase of the NDR 

In the first phase of the NDR, the ANC’s power was strengthened in various ways. Among other things:  

  • socio-economic rights to education, healthcare, housing, and social welfare were included in the 1996 Constitution to empower the state and increase dependency on it;
  • Parliament’s capacity to hold the executive to account was weakened; 
  • judicial independence was undermined, in part by vesting most appointments to the bench in an ANC-dominated Judicial Service Commission; 
  • a comprehensive policy of ‘cadre deployment’ was adopted to bring the public service, armed forces, and state-owned enterprises under ANC control;
  • cadre deployment was extended to other vital institutions, including the judiciary, the media, the universities, business organisations, civil society, and various constitutional structures intended to strengthen South Africa’s democracy (among them the public protector and the Independent Electoral Commission).

Many socio-economic policies important to the NDR were also adopted. Generally, these laws were endorsed by the media and accepted by many in business as vital to redress, while critics were dismissed as racists opposed to ‘transformation’. Based on false claims of this kind: 

  • labour legislation was changed to encourage strikes, impede dismissals, increase employment costs, and price the unskilled out of the market, thereby adding to joblessness and revolutionary potential;
  • employment equity (EE) and black economic empowerment (BEE) rules were introduced so as to build support for the supposed ‘norm’ of ‘demographic representivity’ in employment, ownership, and procurement and demand compliance with racial targets (quotas in all but name);
  • social welfare was enormously expanded via monthly cash grants for children, along with free ‘RDP’ houses, free basic education for the poor, and various other aspects of the social wage;
  • a slow and complex process of land restitution and redistribution was introduced, so to underscore the importance of redress and undermine property rights, while doing little in practice to help the poor; and
  • all water and mineral resources were vested in the custodianship of the state, so ending private ownership of these resources without compensation being paid.

The second phase of the NDR 

By 2012 the ANC had significantly weakened many of the Constitution’s checks and balances. This paved the way for the second phase of the NDR, which began with the Mangaung national conference in December that year. Here, the ANC stated that ‘political freedom had largely been achieved’ and that the next priority was to ‘pursue economic freedom’ in the ‘second phase’ of the transition. 

From 2014 the ANC began stressing the need for ‘radical economic transformation’ aimed at changing the ‘structure’ of the economy, along with its ‘ownership…and control’. The revolutionary alliance also started calling for the Constitution to be amended to allow expropriation without compensation (EWC) and so restore the ‘stolen’ land to ‘the people’. In 2017 the ANC’s Nasrec national conference endorsed this EWC proposal.  

The Nasrec decision has paved the way for the adoption of a constitutional amendment bill which will change the Bill of Rights to allow EWC in wide-ranging but unspecified circumstances. Also relevant is a new expropriation bill which identifies some of those circumstances and makes it clear that the property it covers is ‘not limited to land’.  

These changes – along with new employment equity, black economic empowerment, indigenisation, equality, National Health Insurance, and prescribed asset laws already in the policy pipeline – will pave the way for a host of regulatory and custodial takings for which no compensation will be paid.  

These changes will greatly empower the state and bring South Africa much closer to a ‘socialised’ economy. Such a society, says the SACP, is one in which the private sector is still present but is required to put social needs before private profits. As the NDR proceeds, moreover, the private sector will increasingly be squeezed out of providing ‘public goods’ such as education, healthcare, and transport, which will be ‘decommodified’ and made available solely by the state. 

ANC success in NDR implementation 

The ANC’s inability to run an efficient and corruption-free government matters little to its capacity to implement the NDR, which is already far advanced. Despite a steady decline in its popular support – and the fact that in 2019 it won 57.5% of the seats in the National Assembly with the support of only 26.5% of all eligible voters – the ANC still commands state power and uses it to push ahead with the NDR.  

In general, it does this by adopting laws, regulations, and ‘transformation’ codes of conduct, giving loyal functionaries control over all ‘levers of power’, further eroding constitutional safeguards, and stigmatising whites and the country’s liberal opposition.  

Much of this is being achieved with the strategic advice of allies in the Socialist International and the support of a largely ‘progressive’ media and civil society. Particularly helpful too is the private sector’s contribution to NDR implementation. Once the necessary legal framework has been put in place, business generally puts great effort and resources into complying with damaging labour, EE, BEE, land reform, mining, water licensing, and other laws crucial to the NDR. Much of the heavy NDR lifting is thus done by business, rather than the state. 

The NDR and the ANC’s grip on power 

The economic damage from the NDR also helps cement the ANC’s grip on power. If the economy were thriving and millions of well-educated South Africans could easily find well-paying private-sector jobs outside of state control, the ANC would soon be voted out. A rapidly expanding black middle class with little need to rely on state provision would readily turn to rival political parties – and especially so as memories of the ANC’s romanticised ‘struggle’ against apartheid began to fade. 

By contrast, the more state control expands and private provision contracts under the impact of the NDR, the more South Africans will find themselves dependent on the ANC government for the land and houses they occupy; the education, healthcare and pensions they need; the social grants essential to their survival; and the public sector wages on which the fortunate few are still able to rely. The ANC’s powers of patronage will then be enormous – while the millions dependent on the state for their core needs will become fearful of voting for other parties. 

In this scenario, the ANC will entrench itself in power at the apex of an effective one-party state, as Zanu-PF has done in Zimbabwe. This will bring unprecedented wealth and power to a small coterie of senior SACP and ANC leaders, who will become increasingly adept at extracting rents for themselves and stamping out any dissent. Totalitarian control will become the hallmark of the political and economic ‘emancipation’ the NDR has brought. 

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