How South Africa lost its radical democracy during the apartheid transition


The 1980s marked a significant period in South Africa’s history, as a powerful wave of popular mobilization for democracy swept the nation. Millions of people from trade unions, community organizations, and other social movements united against the apartheid regime and its oppressive forces.

These movements did not just aim for a mere change in government; they aspired to establish a radical form of democracy that would empower the working class and marginalized groups. In their pursuit of liberation, they aligned themselves with the African National Congress, which was banned and exiled at the time, considering it to be their beacon of hope.

How South Africa lost its radical democracy during the apartheid transition
How South Africa lost its radical democracy during the apartheid transition.

However, it is important to note that while these movements showed unity against apartheid, they had also developed their own unique forms of organization and resistance. One notable example is the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu), which was established in 1979 and emerged as a prominent advocate for workers’ control and autonomy from the national liberation movement. Joe Foster, Fosatu’s General Secretary, raised concerns in 1983 about the possibility of opportunistic elements infiltrating and betraying the workers’ movement in the future.

Despite these warnings, in 1985, Fosatu was replaced by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), and the position of advocating for workers’ control and autonomy was abandoned. Cosatu, unlike its predecessor, became directly affiliated with the ANC, thereby aligning its interests with a political party. This shift in allegiance marked a pivotal moment in South Africa’s journey towards democracy, as it represented the loss of the radical democracy envisioned by the popular movements.

The transition from apartheid to democracy was a complex process, deeply influenced by negotiations and compromises. As the ANC gained significant influence and control over the transition, there were inherent tensions between its vision and the aspirations of the grassroots movements that had fought on the frontlines. The ANC, in its quest for a peaceful transition, made significant concessions to secure the support of external actors and elites who were skeptical of radical change.

These compromises compromised the radical democracy that the popular movements had envisioned. The negotiation process allowed for the preservation of certain structures and institutions that perpetuated existing power dynamics, ultimately reinforcing the inequalities that had defined apartheid. The vision of a democracy that prioritized the interests of the working class and the oppressed was, to some extent, set aside in favor of a more moderate approach that aimed for stability and reconciliation.How South Africa lost its radical democracy during the apartheid transition

Another significant movement that emerged in South Africa in the 1980s was the United Democratic Front. The UDF was spearheaded by the radical cleric Allan Boesak and it aimed to unite various sectors of civil society including churches, civic associations, student organizations, and sports bodies. Under the common banner of ‘people’s power’, the UDF sought to bring about direct and mass participation in all aspects of daily life, from national policies to housing, education, working conditions, and even food consumption. This movement was born out of a growing discontent with the apartheid regime and its oppressive policies, and it gained significant traction among the population.

However, as the decade came to a close, both the popular struggle and the state found themselves in a state of crisis as neither side was able to defeat the other. The global context was also undergoing significant changes with the end of the Cold War, and Western powers started withdrawing their support for the apartheid regime. These shifts in the international landscape paved the way for the unbanning of the African National Congress and the beginning of negotiations.

Interestingly, though, instead of asserting their own independent leadership and challenging the liberal framework of democracy imposed by Western governments and their allies, both Cosatu and the UDF quickly surrendered their positions of influence to the ANC.

This move, while perhaps fueled by the desire to achieve a unified front against apartheid, disregarded the important lessons learned from postcolonial failures in other parts of Africa and Frantz Fanon’s writings about the nature of the national bourgeoisie. By aligning themselves with the ANC, Cosatu and the UDF missed an opportunity to forge a more radical path and implement meaningful structural change beyond the liberal democratic framework. This decision would have long-lasting implications for the direction and future of South Africa’s post-apartheid society.

Esther Johnson
Esther Johnson is a creative copywriter and content writer, who is passionate about words and their transformative potential.


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