Political Watch

South Africa’s status as a constitutional state threatened

Constitutional institutions under pressure

A huge ideological battle for the heart of South Africa’s political economy, with serious constitutional implications, is coming to a head.

On at least three fronts South Africa’s claim to be a constitutional state was last week undermined by the reality of governance in the country.

At the heart of it all, below the surface, rages an ideological battle and a clash of cultures. The ANC-led government alliance, unwilling or unable to make clear choices, trying to please all sides, runs the risk of losing control and power. In response it undermines the checks and balances built into the constitution.

Four instances, over as many weeks, illustrate the battle lines:

  • In Washington, USA, the head of the highly respected South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), Frans Cronje, told an influential audience how South Africa’s government is driven not by the constitution or various policy documents, but by the ANC/SACP ideology of  the National Democratic Revolution (NDR);
  • In an opinion piece for the website Groundup, Leonard Gentle, director of the International Labour Research and Information Group, argues that South Africa has, over the past 20 years, become a “neo-liberal capitalist state”; 
  • Remarks by Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithin, in the run-up to and since the recent wave of xenophobia, again exposed the untenable situation and dangers of an absolute monarchy operating within a supposedly democratic system; and
  • Chapter 9 watchdog institutions of the constitution came under renewed pressure,


Representing the one side of the ideological battle Cronje gives an account of power and policy trends in the governing Alliance similar to what we have frequently written and warned about over the last few years (see here, here and here).

He focused on how the ANC, whose leadership has become heavily infiltrated by communists since the ousting of former president Thabo Mbeki, is guided by the NDR as its central strategic and ideological vision in terms of the Strategy and Tactics document adopted at its conference in Morongoro, Tanzania, in 1969.

The NDR, conceived by the former Soviet Union in the 1950s as a means by which newly independent former colonies could be moved to socialism and away from the Western capitalist influence sphere, is central to the programmes of both the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC, adjusted for what they defined as South Africa’s ‘colonialism of a special type’.

Since then the NDR is adapted and aligned to current conditions every five years at the ANC’s national conferences.

Cronje argues that there was a brief departure from this ideological programme during the administrations of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki who pursued politically democratic and economically market-driven policies aimed at growing the economic and creating jobs.

Mbeki sought to marginalise the left and consolidate the political moderate middle ground to the dismay of the SACP and leftists in the ANC and some in COSATU, who scathingly referred to it as the “class project of 1996”.

These factions successfully removed Mbeki at the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007. Soon after, ANC leadership ranks and the cabinet were filled with communists in key positions.

According to Cronje the ANC government’s current ideological/policy goals are to:

  • further remove South Africa from the ongoing exploitation of ‘colonialism of a special type’ and its Western influences;
  • replace current property rights through the ‘redistribution of wealth and income’;
  • establish an ‘African hegemony’ in political, economic, and social life free of Western influence; and
  • push ahead with the NDR as the most direct route to a socialist and then communist society – the so-called two-phased revolutionary strategy.

Consequently the post-2007 ANC – that under Zuma’s leadership has a strong parallel SACP component – does “not see itself as an ordinary political party bound by the ordinary rules of the political game, but rather as a socialist liberation movement with an historic mission to implement the NDR”.

It also does not see itself as bound by the constitution which it views as a negotiated tactical compromise “to be modified as the balance of power shifts in its favour”.


Gentle, in his take on post-1994 developments from a perspective of “working class struggles” writes about the present disintegration of COSATU: “The immediate reason for the demise of COSATU can be traced to the disgruntled forces which overthrew the president of the ANC and of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki.

“The SACP, COSATU and the ANC Youth League made a pact with Jacob Zuma that, in return for seats at the table of the state, they would champion a deeply flawed individual into the highest office. And then the conspirators fell out.”

About the prolonged labour unrest of last year he argues that it was “a source of renewal for the working class – and it passed COSATU and its affiliates by”.

He points out that in the election of the same year “a million people voted for a party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), that opportunistically embraces the language of militant left wing politics – nationalisation, redistribution of wealth, and insisting that ministers and public officials be forced to use public services. This was the language of COSATU in a bygone era, but these days COSATU finds itself alongside a government against whom all these slogans are being directed”.

Gentle further claims that:

  • when a new wave of industrial strikes broke out from 2013, they occurred outside the COSATU unions and the official structures of the labour movement and associated labour laws;
  • from the viewpoint of peace and productivity the post-1994 collective bargaining system has certainly done its job. Strikes have shown a steady decline since 1995. But from the side of ordinary working class people the system has been a disaster on every score;
  • labour peace has come at the cost of the restructuring of the working class towards the very flexible labour market demanded by big business. Workers’ wages and salaries as a percentage of national income have been dropping every year and were overtaken in 1999 by profits. In other words, there has been a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich;
  • affirmative action has split workers between white collar workers as the beneficiaries of  “the new post-apartheid South Africa and a significant component of COSATU membership today”; and
  • Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) has created the contradiction of trade unions becoming capitalists while “the investment companies and the takeover of provident funds also offered fertile ground for corruption, with office bearers and shop stewards sitting on boards and being paid attendance fees and emoluments”.

New political force

It is against this background that a substantial portion of the existing ANC-led government’s traditional power- and support base is crumbling. Moves are on, for not only the formation of a new trade union federation but also a workers’ political party.

During May Day celebrations last week it also became clear that there are great concerns among ANC leadership cadres about the disintegration of Cosatu. Both President Jacob Zuma and his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, made calls for unity.

And, hoping to exploit developments EFF leader, Julius Malema, in his May Day address called on previous COSATU leaders to “stop wasting time. Let them form a federation which will fight for the workers. We will give them workers, as there are workers in the EFF who are looking for a union.”

But clearly also concerned about the potential impact a new worker-based party on existing parties, he made his party’s support conditional on such a party not being formed, saying: “They must be a federation that doesn’t go around telling workers who to vote for.”

It is probably these shifting sands in South Africa’s body politics in an increasingly urbanised workers’ environment that has also made government cautious not to upset the Zulu king with reference to xenophobia-related events. It also plays into the way land redistribution in relation to traditional leaders was approached recently. 

Constitutional institutions

In its battle to hold on to control the ANC government is increasingly putting the constitution’s Chapter 9 watchdog institutions, ensuring checks and balances, under huge pressure.

This is best illustrated by what has been happening recently around the position of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela.

Last week in parliament a senior ANC MP, Mathole Motshekga,  continued with the pressure on Madonsela by subjecting her to scathingly contemptuous treatment and undermining her independence by using the system of budget allocation to pressure her.

Another Chapter 9 institution, the Human Rights Commission (HRC), was also warned off by Motshekga regarding an investigation into King Zwelithini’s remarks about foreigners.

These political shifts probably also go some way towards explaining a Right2Know Campaign report on how political activists and community organisations are monitored and harassed by state intelligence agencies to protect the ANC’s hold on power.


by Stef Terblanche & Piet Coetzer

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