JEREMY CRONIN: The "second transition" - let's not get sucker punched into a false debate

Jeremy Cronin

We are now already deep into the silly season of an ANC-led movement electoral year. At the forefront of trying to promote the silliness are some of the usual hacks in the commercial media - especially those with the attention span of a tweetable headline. Last night the SACP head-office was contacted by one of them, in this case from the Mail & Guardian, wanting to "confirm" that SACP General Secretary, Cde Blade Nzimande was the author of the ANC's draft "Strategy and Tactics" document entitled "The Second Transition?".

For what it's worth - the answer is "no". Cde Blade was NOT part of the drafting team and the first time he saw the document was when it was presented to the NEC for general endorsement as a DISCUSSION draft in the run-up to next week's ANC National Policy Conference. But I won't be surprised to find that tomorrow's Mail & Guardian simply ignores this fact. For the hacks this is not about facts, and, more importantly, it is not about helping to promote a thoughtful discussion about the challenges of dire poverty, inequality and unemployment confronting our country. It's about seeking to promote the shallowest of factional contests.

Take a look at this morning's The Times (Thursday, June 21) for example. It has a stupid story headlined "Zuma's plan thrashed. Second transition document rejected". Even on its own exceedingly superficial terms, the body of the story doesn't quite bear out the claim in the headline. According to the body of the story, some ANC provinces have supposedly "rejected" the document, others have "supported" it. But what does the journalist (Amukelani Chauke) mean by "rejected" or "supported"? Does Chauke mean that provinces have either rejected or supported the document in its ENTIRETY? Or does he mean that some are relatively comfortable with the specific notion of a "second transition" while others are not? For the purposes of The Times' agenda there is no difference between these things. In the world of tweetable political analyses everything is factionalised around simplistic one-line slogans.

And so The Times story (and it is not alone) proceeds to pit ANC Deputy President, cde Kgalema Motlanthe against ANC President, cde Jacob Zuma; COSATU against the SACP; and "non-Marxists" against "Marxists" with the former all being in the "anti-second transition corner" and the latter in the corner of this "Marxist jargon" word "second transition".

There isn't the time or space here to enter into a comprehensive discussion of the ANC's draft Strategy and Tactics document, but let's deal briefly with the idea of a "second transition". There was a time when the SACP, and its pre-1950 forerunner the CPSA, referred strategically to "two-stages" in the South African struggle - a national democratic "stage" and a socialist "stage". That was a very different matter from the current notion of a "second transition" as tentatively advanced in the ANC's draft (we underline DRAFT) Strategy and Tactics document. In any case the SACP has long since definitively critiqued the stage-ist tendencies embedded in our earlier approaches to building socialism.   

What the drafters of the ANC document are seeking to emphasise with this tentative idea of a "second transition" (and remember in the document there is a question mark after the title - "A Second transition?") is that we are at a cross-roads, the ANC's centenary conference needs to be a "watershed" moment, in which we definitively embark on a serious, systemic transformation of our society. In particular, the draft document emphasizes the need for substantive socio-economic transformation. We can only whole-heartedly agree with the spirit of these inclinations, and clearly they are congruent with much of what is advanced in the SACP's own current draft "South African Road to Socialism" document under discussion in the run-up to our National Congress next month.

But, while the notion of a "second transition" points generally in the direction of the need to move decisively towards substantive transformation, I don't think it is the most useful conceptual entry-point for approaching these challenges.

Briefly, these are some of the reasons for asserting this:

One, although the draft S&T document seeks to nuance this, there is a strong tendency embedded in the notion of "two transitions" to separate the political ("transition one") from the socio-economic ("transition two"). This leads, in turn, to a tendency within the document to over-state the achievements realized in the political domain since 1994. To take just one example, para.16 of the draft S&T tells us that "This tour de force [the adoption in 1996 of the new Constitution]…saw…the integration of numerous racially-based departments of education, health, welfare, etc into single public systems that serve all; the establishment of new provinces and forms of local government; the integration of old foes from the SADF, the SAP and the intelligence services with the liberation armies into security forces sworn to serve and protect all…" etc.

Of course we should celebrate the achievements of our democratic breakthrough and the progressive nature of our new Constitution. But as the S&T document itself realizes in later sections, much of this "tour-de-force" is only aspirational and theoretical - do our education or health systems actually "serve all"? Is the provincial or local government dispensation functional? Has integration in the security sector proceeded well? When the draft S&T document speaks of a "first" "political" transition it is really talking more narrowly about a new constitutional dispensation - and not the political domain in general (i.e. not political institutions, not public policy, and critically for the SACP, not class political power). The political and the socio-economic simply cannot be separated out into two separate transitions.

Two, related to this tendency to separate the "political" and the "socio-economic" is a tendency in the S&T document to fudge a self-critical evaluation of policy in the supposed "first transition". This problematic tendency is in evidence in several places, for instance in the section entitled "Differences on tactical approaches to the NDR" (paras 33 onwards). Without going into too much detail here, we are told (correctly I think) that in around 1996 there was a need for "fiscal consolidation". But then it proceeds "thus we explained that GEAR was a tactical detour necessitated by objective conditions". I beg to differ. GEAR was NOT presented in 1996 through the early 2000s as a "tactical detour". It was presented by what was then the dominant group within the ANC and government as the high-road to growth and development. GEAR was not just about conjunctural macro-economic stabilization, it was a comprehensive ideological position that development would only be possible as the consequence of private-sector led growth. Even the draft S&T document implicitly recognizes this when it says that later we "changed gear and shifted focus from liberalization policies to addressing micro-economic matters…" Liberalisation policies (which of course impact directly on the micro-economic) and macro-economic stabilization are NOT equivalents (unless, of course, you continue to be captive of neo-liberal assumptions). This is not about retrospective point-scoring, but unless we are more honest about policy illusions in the so-called "first transition", we will not adequately rise to the challenges of fundamental socio-economic transformation in a supposed "second" transition.

Thirdly, this tendency to disarticulate the political in general from the narrower juridico-consitutional domain, or to disarticulate the political from the social and economic, or policy from politics, or the micro from the macro-economic are all related to weaknesses in analyzing the SYSTEMIC (that is, inter-connected) nature of the challenges we are confronting. One of many examples - in paragraph 24, and quoting from the National Planning Commission - the S&T documents notes that one of the many "achievements" of the "first transition" is that "ten million people have been accommodated in formal housing". Later in the document (at paragraph 171 - again quoting from the National Planning Commission) we are correctly reminded that apartheid spatial patterns continue to reproduce racialised poverty, inequality and unemployment. But are these spatial patterns just a stubborn pre-1994 legacy, or have our own housing policies, locating ten million people in distant RDP dormitory townships, not reinforced this spatial legacy? Operating with the notion of two separate "transitions" too easily draws a veil over political policy mistakes in the supposed first transition.

Fourthly, related to all of the above, the inability to clearly analyse the systemic nature of our challenges leads to a tendency in the document to portray the economic growth path we inherited (what the document describes as an "apartheid colonial" economy) as essentially characterized by "white ownership" of the "major means of production". This can easily lead to the assumption that de-racialising ownership will change the system and the trajectory of our "developmental" path. Clearly our economy was racialised (and remains racialised in many respects), but the document tends to be silent about the more deep-seated features of our "apartheid colonial" economy - excessive unbeneficiated export dependence, excessive dependence on capital imports, incredibly high levels of monopoly concentration and particularly the dominance of the mining-finance oligopolies and the historic weaknesses of the manufacturing and small enterprise sector, a dualistic labour market, etc.

Notwithstanding these and other concerns, I believe that the draft S&T document has laid a very useful basis for constructive and comradely discussion. The document quite correctly signals the need for a concerted effort to decisively carry through all-round transformation and particularly social and economic transformation, while building on the democratic constitutional breakthrough of 1994. I don't think that the idea of a "second transition" is the most helpful entry-point for advancing these absolutely correct concerns - but, whether we call it a second transition (while guarding against the potential pitfalls noted above), or we call it a decisive advance of the national democratic revolution isn't the central question. The central question is how do we programmatically address the challenges confronting the great majority of South Africans. Let's not allow the media hacks to distract us from this critical responsibility!

Asikhulume!!

Jeremy Cronin is the SACP Deputy General Secretary.

This column first appeared on the SACP's website.