‘Second transition’: what’s inside the bottle?


Since the publication in February of an ANC discussion document that calls for South Africa to embark on what it calls “a second transition”, a debate has been raging on the proposal.

Unfortunately, the debate has been confined to the merits or demerits of the concept. Recently, the concept has regrettably become a proxy for different groupings within the ANC, ostensibly positioning themselves for the national policy conference of the organisation and ultimately its elective gathering in Mangaung.

It is for this reason that we feel that clarification on the concept of a second transition is necessary. While we intend to point out weaknesses of the concept of a second transition, we would, in this paper, also look at the policy proposals contained in the discussion document with the purpose of moving beyond conceptual disputes.

A fuzzy political concept.

In politics, precision of concepts is crucial. Like a label on a medicine bottle, a political concept must aptly capture what it describes. It must indicate exactly what is inside the container.

This is vital, as concepts are the vocabulary of political programmes from which strategy is derived. Unfortunately, the concept of a second transition’ fails to tell us what is inside the medicine bottle. It is vague, lacks theoretical rigour and is extremely misleading.

In many ways, the concept departs from the way the ANC has historically analysed the South African social formation. It is also a departure from a conceptualisation of the national democratic revolution (NDR) as having, as its objective, the simultaneous addressing of contradictions that arise as a result of racial oppression, economic super-exploitation and patriarchy.

According to the authors of the second transition, “having concluded our first transition with its focus on democratisation”, we need “a vision of for a second transition that must focus on the social and economic transformation of South Africa over the next 30 to 50 years”.

For the writers of the document, the main achievement of the first 15 years of the new South Africa is the “peaceful and thoroughgoing political and democratic transformation” that has taken place in the country.

Of concern to them is the discrepancy between “far-reaching achievements of political liberation” and “liberation from socio-economic bondage”.

The goals of the second transition – for its promoters, are rising per capita income, full employment, reduction in wealth and income inequalities, and changes in racial patterns of wealth and income.

To achieve these objectives, the discussion document proposes the adoption of a new economic development model; a floor of socio-economic rights and a social transformation programme that provides a safety net for the most vulnerable.

At the centre of all of this is the building of “a democratic developmental state that plays a driving role in the social and economic development of the country”. The discussion paper commits the ANC to “a mixed economy with state, co-operative and other forms of social ownership co-existing with a vibrant private sector”.

Clearly, no one who is concerned with the plight of millions of poor people in South Africa will deny the urgency expressed in the ANC discussion document about addressing the high levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality that prevail in the country.

As the discussion document states, there is an emerging consensus within the ANC-South African Communist Party -Congress of South African Trade Unions Alliance that the “triangle of poverty, inequality and unemployment” inhibits the country from “achieving its goal of an inclusive, non-racial and non-sexist country”.

As far back as 2003, Cosatu and the SACP argued, for the same reasons advanced in the discussion document, that the rich were the beneficiaries of the first decade of democracy.
Without inventing new concepts, the two organisations went to show how this state of affairs was partly a result of policy choices adopted after 1994.

Cosatu and the SACP then staked a claim of how, through policy revisions, the second decade could belong to the working class and the poor.

The first problem with the ANC discussion document is that it frames the above challenges – which have been the contradictions that the NDR is meant to address anyway – as part of a second transition.

Since its historic 1969 consultative conference in Tanzania’s Morogoro, the ANC, moving from an analysis that established an inextricable link between apartheid and capitalism, has argued that political liberation in South Africa is bound up with economic emancipation and that “it is inconceivable for liberation to have meaning without a return of the wealth of the land to the people”.

Every ANC conference since then, including those of other Alliance formations, has confirmed such a perspective.

In the development of its strategic perspectives over time, the SACP understood very well that “in our conditions in which national oppression and economic exploitation are inextricably linked, there can, at the end of the day, be no fundamental liberation without full economic emancipation” (Path to Power 1989).

The document on the second transition revises this perspective and posits a view of a “successful” political transition unaccompanied by economic transformation.

If what the discussion document describes is correct, then it is incumbent on the protagonists of the second transition concept to point out that the prognosis and strategic line of the ANC since 1969 was either incorrect, or not borne out by the turn of developments.

But as any observer of post-1994 political developments in South Africa would attest, having allowed “existing economic forces to retain their interests intact” has fed “the root of racial supremacy” as the Morogoro Strategy and Tactics document predicted.

Instead of trumpeting “far-reaching achievements of political liberation”, authors of the discussion document were supposed to demonstrate how, without a “return of the wealth to the people as whole”, democracy has been substantively hollow.

The second error that that second transition discussion document commits is to characterise our transition as “peaceful and thoroughgoing”.

Although the South African democratic breakthrough did not come about as a result of an insurrectionary revolution, the political transition was drenched in blood as more than 10 000 people were killed in KwaZulu-Natal and other townships between 1990 and 1994 as a result of a low-intensity warfare aimed at weakening liberation forces.

But more important is to question the thoroughgoing nature and completeness of our political transition that the ANC discussion document asserts.

We still need to rejig our political and electoral machinery to make public representatives not only accountable, but the whole system more participatory.

With no diversity in our monopolised media and with sections of the judiciary untransformed in terms of access to ordinary people, the political transition remains incomplete.

The third problem in the ANC discussion document is the failure to acknowledge how, in a context where contemporary capitalism assumes an anti-democratic posture, it is vital for the political left not only to defend democracy, but to extend its frontiers.

Recent developments in Greece and Italy are examples of how capitalism in crisis becomes incompatible with democracy. In both countries, not only did unelected financiers replace elected prime ministers; citizens’ voices against austerity are being trampled on.

The separation of the political and the economic transitions potentially lays the basis for an abandonment of the task to defend and deepen democracy.

With the task to counter those with power from emptying democratic rights of the majority still outstanding and with a united South African nation proving to be nothing else but a chimera, the abandonment of the fight to champion democracy and nation-building under the pretext of a completed political transition will be a grave strategic mistake.

Moving beyond the concept

It is our contention that there is little new both in the stated aims of the second transition and the means proposed to get there.

The proposals for a mixed economy, use of natural endowments to drive industrialisation, diversification of the economy, enterprise development, comprehensive social security, job-creation, skills and rural development were spelt out in the Reconstruction and Development Programme and numerous policy documents of the ANC-SACP-Cosatu alliance.

For Numsa, the important questions to be raised are: why have we as a country not moved to achieve these noble goals, and secondly how adequate are the measures proposed in the new document to realise all the talk about full employment, rising per capita income, reduction of inequalities, and changes in patterns of wealth and income?

It is in answering these questions that the discussion document is at its weakest. In the section on obstacles to transformation, the paper bprrows heavily from both the diagnostic report of the National Planning Commission and the draft national development plan (NDP).

Similar to the draft NDP, the paper lists continued divisions within society, rapid urbanisation, a dysfunctional state, corruption, poor quality of education, inadequate infrastructure and ailing and uneven public service as some of the obstacles to transformation.

Except in a reference to the 2002 Strategy and Tactics document of the ANC, the current document makes no mention of how existing property relations and the failure to deal with this reality have been obstacles to transformation.

The document is also mum on the role of monopoly capital in blocking transformation. The paper for discussion at this week’s conference does not seriously evaluate the policy choices taken over the last 18 years.

Mere references are made to tactical detours and “actual or perceived gap between our theory of transition and the ‘devilish’ detail of policy formulation and implementation”.


Numsa’s view is that unless questions of property ownership are addressed head on, we will continue to fail to implement thoroughgoing socio-economic transformation, and the so-called second transition will remain a pipe dream.

In Numsa discussion documents released on the eve of the union’s national congress early in June, we pointed to indices that showed an increase in the degree of concentration in the agricultural sector where about 2 500 farms produce more than half of total output.

We also spoke about how, despite the fact that South Africa is one of the top producers of strategic minerals such as chromium, vanadium and manganese, we do not have leverage to beneficiate these as we do not control or own them.

It is because of these facts that Numsa believes that the state should take controlling stakes in segments of strategic value chains and adopt a policy of dual pricing that distinguishes domestic from external markets.

It is the timidity of the proposals in the ANC discussion document and refusal to propose measures such as these, that we feel that despite the good intentions the second transition will amount to nothing for working class and ordinary people.

It is also our humble submission that the NDR has gone off the rails because of the sluggishness in implementing prescriptions of the Freedom Charter such as the transfer of wealth to the people and distributing land.

Instead of coming up with new concepts, it is our view that as the broad alliance we should honestly admit that NDR – as the basis of a combined political and economic transition – is off-track insofar as it has not been able to fundamentally address the contradictions caused by racial oppression, patriarchy and economic exploitation.

Instead of manufacturing new concepts our clarion call is: return to the Freedom Charter!


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