Socialism and the NDR

With national congress around the corner, a three letter abbreviation is invoked in all kinds of discussions in the union. Below Numsa Bulletin publishes an extract on the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) from a joint Congress of South African Trade Union (Cosatu) – South African Communist Party (SACP) booklet.

Over the years, there have been many debates in South Africa about the relationship of the socialist struggle to the National Democratic Revolution (NDR). Some have argued, in the name of socialism, that the two struggles are incompatible. That any socialist co-operation with the NDR will result in confusion and an inevitable sell-out.

The alternative view is that the two struggles are deeply interconnected in South Africa . In the case of the Communist Party in South Africa , this alternative view has been official policy since 1929. At its recent congresses Cosatu has also strongly affirmed the interconnection of the NDR and the struggle for socialism. But if this view is correct, we still have to explain the relationship of socialism to the NDR. One longstanding view has been that this relationship is best explained as “two stages”.

Two stages?

For a number of decades in the SACP, there was a tendency to think of the NDR as a “first stage”. When this “first stage” was consolidated, the moment would be ripe for a “second stage” – a socialist revolution. Although this was never completely elaborated, the implication was that the ANC would lead the first stage, but that the party would lead the second.

Over the last 15 years, the SACP has more and more revised this kind of approach. In the 1980’s, comrade Joe Slovo began to point out the many inter-connections between the NDR and the socialist struggle. “There is no Chinese Wall between the two”, he argued. At its 1995 and 1998 congresses the SACP took this perspective further. In 1995 the SACP advanced the slogan: ” Socialism is the Future, Build it Now !” In its 1995 Strategic Perspective the party stated that we need to build:

capacity for socialism
momentum towards socialism and
elements of socialism

…now in the present, in the midst of advancing, deepening and defending the NDR.

At its 1998 congress, Cosatu’s resolution on socialism affirms a very similar perspective. While operating in the midst of an unfolding NDR, the resolution argues, we must construct “building blocks” for socialism. Why is the SACP and Cosatu revisiting the wisdom of a “two stage’ theory? There are at least two important reasons;

a mechanical two-stage approach can easily encourage a lazy socialism. You can proclaim yourself socialist, but you don’t have to think too much about (or organise for) socialism because … “now is not the moment”;
a two-stage approach can, alternatively, lead to a certain opportunism in regard to the tasks of the NDR and towards the ANC itself. Two stageists might not take the NDR or building the ANC seriously – as they are “just a passing phase”. The “real thing” comes later.

Both of these positions are wrong. It is critical to continuously develop socialist perspectives, programmes and organisation. It is equally wrong to think that socialism will come later, if socialists are not active as socialists in the midst of the NDR. Moreover, the struggle against national oppression and against imperialist domination, and the struggle for thorough-going democracy, are not side-tracks from the socialist struggle. They are integral to it. The consolidation of a socialist South Africa will not be about the abolition of the NDR goals and achievements – but about the advancing, deepening and defence of them.

It is interesting that, at the very moment when the mainstream of socialism in our country has been re-thinking the two stage theory, anti-socialists have begun promoting it. Some in our broad national movement have been arguing that the NDR is “not about transforming property relations” – that, apparently, belongs to another stage. Others have argued that “socialism” is irrelevant in “this stage”. The tasks of this stage, we are told, are to consolidate a strong “capitalism”, by deploying leading cadres into the boardrooms!

Two strategic possibilities

Basically, the direction of the transition is a class-contested reality. On the one hand, the capitalist class in our country, working closely with imperialist forces, seeks:

to bring about some limited, formal deracialisation (to destabilise or even win over key parts of the national liberation movement), and
to carry through neo-liberal structure transformations of the economy to make it more “competitive” within the context of the imperialist globalisation.

Opposed to this is the national democratic strategic agenda of our broad liberation movement. What do we mean by a national democratic revolution (NDR)? While the national and democratic dimensions are deeply inter-related, it is useful to look at each in turn.

The “national” in the NDR

The “national” in the NDR can itself be broken down into three aspects;

The “national” aspect of the struggle refers, in the first place, to the struggle to overcome the legacy of racial/or national oppression of the black majority in general, and the African people in particular. Over many decades, we have succeeded in advancing our struggle by mobilising around the black and African majority’s sense of national grievance and solidarity. Opposition forces in SA constantly complain that the ANC/SACP/Cosatu alliance is overwhelmingly black in its constituency and politics. In fact, the ANC-led liberation movement has always been consistently non-racial in its policies – but that does not mean that the overwhelming constituency of this alliance is not going to be black. For that we make no apology. Overcoming the legacy of black oppression is, precisely, the most important task for consistent non-racialism in our country. And the motive force for such a struggle will naturally be precisely the great majority that suffers this legacy.
The “national” aspect of the NDR refers, in the second place, to the task of nation-building . When we think of the nation-building we sometimes think only of building common national patriotism – with support for rugby teams or Olympic bids. Such things might be a small part of nation-building – much more important is the forging of actual material conditions for a united nation. This means overcoming the huge inequalities in infrastructural development between urban and rural areas, between formerly white and formerly black urban areas. It means forging a unifying national education system, equally available to all. It means building, also, a unified, non-racial labour market.
The third aspect of the “national” in the NDR is the struggle for effective national sovereignty . We have seen how the capitalist growth path in our country over the 20 th century integrated our society into the global economy as a peripheral, third world economy. The struggle for effective national sovereignty is, above all the struggle to ensure that South Africa is able as much as possible to pursue its own independent social and economic development agenda. (Of course, this means working with many others – the countries of our region, the South in general, progressive forces in the North, etc). By contrast, the capitalist neo-liberal agenda for South Africa is to ensure that we “follow the rules of the imperialist game”, that we remain locked into the agenda of global imperialism. This means that we should remain a “reliable”, “predictable”, “investor-friendly” and subordinate peripheral economy.

The “democratic” in the NDR

A core component of the NDR, historically, was to win a one-person, one-vote political dispensation. Now that we have succeeded in this objective, our capitalist opponents (the very ones who over many decades opposed granting a non-racial franchise) want to confine democracy to periodic multi-party elections.

But within our liberation movement, we have always had a much more profound understanding of democracy. For us, democracy must embrace, not just formal political voting rights – as important as these are – but also:

The democratisation of all spheres of society – including the economy. We see, for instance, the greater democratic rights for workers embodied in the Labour Relations Act, as part of the “d” in the NDR.
The development of many different kinds of democratic involvement – representative democracy (i.e. the voting for representatives, like MPs or councillors); but also various forms of participatory democracy that directly involve constituencies in decisions around their daily lives (safety committees on mines, community police forums, democratic hospital boards, etc). It is critical that, as a key part of democratisation, we build and re-build organs of popular power where we live and where we work and study.

The democratisation of gender relations is another critical component of the “d” in the NDR. The relative subordination of women in South Africa made use of this relative subordination in traditional societies – but distorted it and greatly intensified women’s oppression.

The unpaid labour of rural African women, in particular, reproduced “cheap” male migrant labour that fuelled the entire industrialisation of our society. The intense triple (race, class and gender) oppression of black women is central to the overall under-development of our society. There is no national democratic transformation that does not take women’s emancipation as a central task.

The “revolution” in the NDR

The struggle for national democratic transformation is a revolutionary struggle. Revolutions may or may not involve violence. When we invoke the term “revolution” here we are not thinking of some heroic and bloody event. We are speaking of a profound process of change in which power relations are radically transformed.

The “r” in the NDR takes us to the heart of the difference between our agenda, and that of our opponents. By 1990, imperialism and local big capital had accepted the need for change in South Africa . However, their version of change is essentially of the sharing of some power with an emerging new elite – not the radical transformation/ democratisation of power.

The neo-liberal agenda seeks to deracialise, to some extent, the massive inequalities of our society, but without overcoming these inequalities. The old ruling bloc hopes to stabilise its own powers and privileges by constituting a non-racial elite – by making space for a few more places around the boardroom table.

This is why “black economic empowerment”, in this agenda, is not about mass black economic empowerment – by, perhaps, nationalising the banks, or through a radical land redistribution programme, or mass public transport. “Black economic empowerment” is reduced to the advancement of a tiny elite.

Likewise, while acknowledging women’s oppression, the neo-liberal agenda focuses on a narrow, elite, affirmative action perspective.


For the sake of explanation and discussion we have separated the “n”, the “d” and “r” in NDR. The main point we have been trying to make, however is that these different aspects of struggle are deeply interconnected in our South African conditions. If you remove a radical democratisation perspective from your approach to the national question, you may end up focusing on elite “black economic empowerment”. If you remove the burning national questions from your approach to democracy in South Africa , you may end up focusing simply on electoral institutions. The NDR is one process, not three or more parallel processes.

( This extract is from Cosatu and SACP’s Building Socialism Now: Preparing for the New Millennium , 1999 )