TAKING HISTORY SERIOUSLY Social democracy in the ANC

Contemporary South African political debate can oversimplify or even ignore the complicated and contested history of social and political thinking in the ANC. It is, however, important to consider this history, said PROFESSOR ROBERT VAN NIEKERK of Rhodes University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, and to see contemporary debates in the context of a past that powerfully determines what is possible today. Reflecting on the ANC’s social democratic tradition, he concluded that the idea of a social democratic welfare state in the policies of the ANC is a robust and valuable tradition which it would do well to reconnect with.


African Claims, 1943
The section of dealing with industry and labour:  
  •  equal opportunity to engage in any occupation, trade or industry. In order that this objective might be realised to the fullest extent, facilities must be provided for technical and university education of Africans so as to enable them to enter skilled and semi-skilled occupations, professions, government service and other spheres of employment; 
  • equal pay for equal work, as well as equal opportunity for all work and, for the unskilled workers in both rural and urban areas, such minimum wage shall enable the workers to live in health, happiness, decency and comfort;
  • the removal of the Colour Bar in industry and other occupations;
  • the statutory recognition of the right of the African worker to collective bargaining under the Industrial Conciliation Act;
  • that the African worker shall be insured against sickness, unemployment, accidents, old age, as well as for all other physical disabilities arising from the nature of their work: the contributions to such insurance should be borne entirely by the government and the employers;
  • the extension of all industrial welfare legislation to Africans engaged in agriculture, domestic service and in public institutions or bodies.


What kind of social policy, Professor van Niekerk asked, can overcome the legacy of poverty and inequality from the colonial, segregationist, apartheid and post-apartheid eras?

President Zuma recently drew a distinction between welfare and developmental states, implying that it is the latter for which we should aim. But is there in fact a contradiction between the two?

Does South Africa not, with its universal primary education, statutory social insurance and moves towards national health insurance, already have many of the characteristics of a social democratic welfare state?

Social democracy or not, it is essential to be clear on the developmental route we want to take, said Van Niekerk. We need to look at South Africa’s history and that of other countries and learn from these earlier experiences. If we do not, we may find ourselves locked for many years into policies with unpredictable and possibly disastrous consequences from which it may be difficult to escape.

Clearly, the ANC has long been and still is a crucial forum for discussing and formulating social policy. The key moments were in the 1940s, 1950s and 1990s. We may be in another such moment now. A crucial document is the 1943 African Claims. Dr AB Xuma’s ANC shifted from ethnic mobilisation to mass campaigning, and used the radical ideas prevalent during the anti-fascist struggle. These ideas involved equality of treatment for the whole population: a bill of social rights, state medical services and compulsory education, as well as extension of progressive labour legislation to all racial groups. This was the first clear formulation of social democratic ideas in the ANC. Reiterating these themes, the 1955 Freedom Charter demanded income maintenance, universal education and medical care provided by the state, as well as rights to housing.

However, how might these aims have been achieved? The goals of African Claims and the Freedom Charter could not have been achieved without a democratic, interventionist state which could redistribute wealth and resources between the white minority and the black majority, much as Clement Attlee’s Labour government carried out its redistributive programme in post-war Britain. At the time, this was a pipe-dream. Now, however, the ANC is in power. How might similar aims be achieved today? What political conditions need to be satisfied and policies applied to achieve the goals of re-distributive social policy?

In the 1990s conditions emerged in South Africa where social democracy might become a practical programme and not just an attractive theory. However, this was also the post-Cold War era, when fiscal conservatism was dominant all over the world and the World Bank was at the peak of its influence. In South Africa this was reflected in the sidelining of the RDP and the implementation of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) strategy, later modified as the Accelerated Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (AsgiSA). The radical social democratic programme implemented by the RDP shrank to a social safety net.

In 2008 the dramatic political events at Polokwane seemed to include an attempt to recover and emphasise the social democratic tradition.

But is there the potential for a South African social democracy? Could there be a political consensus between the middle and working classes that might make this possible? Was this ‛contested re-emergence of a social democratic agenda’ simply one of various fleeting alternatives that emerged at a moment of political uncertainty and change? Or can its champions assert it as the driving force in the creation of a humane, egalitarian and democratic South Africa?

Comment came from many angles. Some wondered about the terms used: is there really one thing called ‛social democracy’? It seems a loose concept, the precise meaning of which is difficult to pin down.

Which version of social democracy should be pursued in South Africa?

Others questioned whether social democracy really had such a clear line of descent within the ANC as the paper implied, and wondered whether the ideas of Xuma and Luthuli, admirable in their day, might not become a straitjacket in the modern era.

Nonetheless, some were clear that the ANC stood and stands for a socialist, anti-capitalist society, and that increasing inequality since 1994 is the main challenge it faces.

Others felt that the issue of economic growth was more important than the paper implied. There is substantial consensus about social ends: however, inclusive growth is the problem.

Ultimately, structural change must come from production and ownership rather than from distribution.

The question of whether the South African state is ‛weak’ or ‛strong’ – or perhaps even ‛effective’ – was discussed extensively: is it robust, skilled and focused enough to take on a thoroughgoing programme of transformation?

As one participant put it, are we looking at desperate attempts to reach a goal without clarity about how to reach that goal? On the other hand, some thought that the question should be whether the government, rather than the abstract ‛state’, was weak or strong. Some focused on the internal dynamics of the civil service: the Treasury was accused of putting a brake on transformative policy: lack of coordination, and reports and campaigns that run into the sand, are major problems.