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A Condensed History of Post-Apartheid South Africa: A Hollow Shell of Racial and Political Progress

Posted by Hadley Sachs on

The end of the Apartheid Era in South Africa signified the governmental transition from an oppressive government that did not know or care about the needs of its people to one that was made up of those very citizens who worked hardest to meet the needs of its people. This transformation was expected to turn the post-apartheid government into a near utopian society that embodied the best ideals of the social movements under apartheid. The post-apartheid government absorbed the major political organizations that had existed within the country and led the revolution, which many people hoped would strengthen South African’s ability to create social change within the country.


Instead, the absorption of these organizations into the government destroyed their ability to make any sort of change and alienated many of their followers. The goal of the political movements within South Africa had long been to combat the problems they saw in the government, but once they became the government, both the leaders and the citizenry did not know where to turn for social revolution. The old government enforced an economic system that deliberately subjugated the majority of the population while the new one embraced neoliberalism under the guise that the new economy would break the ties of the apartheid power structure and ultimately liberate the entire population.

When the ANC took power they promised to put an end to the social inequalities and economic disparities that had been enforced by the apartheid government, but when the ANC made the economic transition from Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) to Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), South Africa entered into an “age of retreat.” Implementing a neoliberal economic system forced them to abandon their ideological and sociopolitical goals in order to generate profits through a structure that was very similar to the one that existed under the apartheid government. As part of the Tripartite Alliance, both the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) were forced to choose between temporarily abandoning their goals and trying to sway the overwhelming political power of the Alliance to the left, or to disrupt the political stability within the country and risk not being able to meet their goals either way.

The formation of the Tripartite Alliance was a symbol of peace and hope for the next generation of South African Politics, and none of the parties that existed within the alliance wanted to do anything to disrupt the stability that the union represented. Since its formation, the ANC has been the dominant party in the Alliance, and in order to maintain its stability, both the SACP and COSATU have had to blindly support the ANC party as a whole while trying to constructively criticize the policies it has implemented. By giving up on their own goals in order to support the ANC, the SACP and COSATU have gradually continued to lose their power while the power of the ANC has steadily increased.

These aforementioned institutions have become ineffective and unable to make substantive changes because their ability to organize against the state was mitigated by joining the Tripartite Alliance. The Age of Retreat in South Africa is embodied not only through the new government’s quick abandonment of their goals but also through the steady decline in political stamina perpetuated by both the Tripartite Alliance and South African citizens. The introduction of neoliberalism into South Africa came at a paradoxical time in the revolution of the country: the first major political choice the new government made was also the last political choice they would be able to make independent of the instability and unpredictability of the global market.

As South Africa entered into the global economy, they were forced to abandon many of their immediate sociopolitical goals in order to generate wealth; and in an attempt to preserve the newly established peaceful governmental alliance, COSATU and the SACP were also forced to ignore their own future political goals. This, in turn, obliterated the effectiveness of these organizations to lead or support social movements within the country. The ANC’s inability to follow through on the promises it made in the early years it was in power rendered the entire post-apartheid government a hollow shell of what could have been.

When the post-apartheid transition was made, those major political organizations that had been the most effective at organizing and implementing social movements against the government became the government themselves, which naturally changed their capability to enact broad social change. After the transition, “political opportunities had changed drastically and previous networks had been absorbed in whole or in part into the state apparatus; the United Democratic Front (UDF), ANC, civics, and NGOs were either now part of the government or operating in close collaboration with the government.” The political opportunities that were once available for people to use to organize social movements opposing the issues they saw in the government were obliterated when those very organizations became the government perpetuating those exact problems.

Because these formerly powerful social organizations were absorbed into the political structure, though they still existed, their effectiveness fundamentally changed, “leaving opponents of the government without a ‘voice’ with which to express or a mechanism to organize opposition.” The three strongest social organizations in the country at the end of apartheid were the ANC, COSATU, and the SACP, all of which were all amalgamated into the Tripartite Alliance government and therefore disappeared from the social revolution scene of the country. In becoming a part of this alliance, all three of these organizations had to change some of the ways that they acted and were all forced to make compromises for what they perceived to be the greater good of the new government.

As the dominant party in the Tripartite Alliance, the ANC was largely responsible for setting up the goals that were later unmet by the post-apartheid government through its decision to embrace a neoliberal agenda. “The major state goals of the RDP were to: eliminate poverty and inequalities generated by decades of apartheid; raise living standards and develop human resource capacity; address imbalances and structural problems in the economy and the labor markets; end discrimination in business; establish a living wage; address economic imbalances in southern Africa and develop a prosperous and balanced regional economy.” The goals put forth by the ANC in its early years were admirable, but due to the program’s inability to generate as much wealth as quickly as they would have hoped, the ANC quickly rejected RDP in favor of the neoliberal GEAR system. As a result of embracing the GEAR system, many of the social goals embodied in RDP such as addressing the social inequity left behind by apartheid and alleviating poverty were put on the back burner, or forgotten entirely.

“GEAR embodies, in its core fiscal and monetary policies, a neo-liberal approach that is at variance with our reconstruction and development objectives. Much of GEAR, and indeed much of government’s evolving economic policy has shifted progressively away from ANC economic policy in the first half of the 1990s…” While RDP sought to strengthen South Africa’s economy and restore social justice to the majority of South Africans who had been oppressed under apartheid, GEAR was more focused on generating economic development than it was on the development of any form of a social program. By choosing GEAR over the RDP, the ANC abandoned the majority of its social goals and quickly began to resemble the government it had replaced. This transformation from the strong political organizations that the led the revolution, into the new government that supported the exact types of economic and social injustice they had previously mobilized against was a stark realization for the people of South Africa.

Despite the fact that the majority of South Africans (including all of those under COSATU and the SACP), rejected the neoliberal, economic, and governmental system installed by the ANC, the system itself was very difficult to criticize. The ANC has continued to receive overwhelming support despite the fact that it has not met the majority of its goals, and the majority of South Africans feel that as it stands it does not serve as an adequate means to meet their political goals. “A crucial finding… is the manner in which workers divorce their disaffection with individual political leaders and the ANC government from their support for the ANC itself. It is argued that this is because they understand the ANC as an organization to be sacrosanct: the failures of the ANC government are considered to result from the inability of individual leaders to meet their expectations… rather than any irredeemable ideological shortcomings of the ANC itself.”

Although the majority of workers in South Africa have been largely disappointed by the actual changes made by the ANC, they continue to view the political organization as a whole as a symbol of possibility and reformation. The specific people who comprise the organization and the political and economic decisions it has made have not dissuaded people from supporting the ANC because they believe in its ability to be resilient and return to its original message. “Workers expect the ANC to represent them on a broader range of issues, not simply those related to class. They continue to identify with the ANC not only because of their class or historical affinity with the organization, but also because they identify it with certain social and cultural aspirations.” The social and cultural aspirations that the ANC has long stood for are those same aspirations that drew people to support the ANC as a social movement, and the same values that originally unified the Tripartite Alliance.

Through supporting the ANC in the face its shortcomings, the SACP and COSATU were forced to abandon many of their own goals and weaken their leadership. SACP and COSATU members are also disappointed by the achievements of the ANC, but like the workers, they believe that their political goals are still strongly aligned with those of the ANC. “COSATU… has remained loyal to the ANC at elections and continues to support the alliance… Workers would only support… an end to the alliance, if they had ceased to identify their aspirations with the ANC… Workers continue to identify strongly with the ANC and that although they are acutely aware of its shortcomings, they believe the ANC as an organization is not a lost cause.” COSATU continues to support the ANC just by virtue of the fact that they were united on many of the same ideological fronts under apartheid.

Supporting the ANC despite its inability to follow through on its promises, and surrendering their own power to remain a part of the Tripartite Alliance undermined COSATU’s ability to serve as an effective political organization. Although the organization has sought further political influence in the Tripartite Alliance, “COSATU’s influence on its alliance partner, the African National Congress (ANC), has been steadily eroding throughout the transition years. Large numbers of organized workers have been retrenched, casualised and / or forced into the informal economy leading to a further expansion of the burgeoning underclasses.” By surrendering their political ideologies in order to strengthen the Alliance, COSATU has given up the political sway it once had to enact change. Because COSATU is an integral part of the post-apartheid government, they have relinquished their ability to mobilize the types of social movements that once had the ability to bring the country to a standstill. In conjunction with this lost ability to organize social movements, COSATU has also watered down much of what it stands for in order to keep the government stable and strong.

The SACP has also given up on many of its political goals in order to strengthen the ANC, and has also gradually lost much of its political influence. “The SACP has consistently prioritized the maintenance of the ANC-dominated Tripartite Alliance above all else. This has meant that the Party’s efforts to contest political space in the post-apartheid era have been tempered and moderated by its unwavering commitment to the ANC. In particular, attention is consistently drawn away from mass mobilization, to attempting to influence the ANC from within.” Mass mobilization was one of the most influential ways that political revolution took place during apartheid, and both the SACP and COSATU were excellent organizations at motivating such movements. Under apartheid, the SACP would not have let the government behave in the ways that it did, but as a figurehead of the government the SACP was forced to choose between staying in power or following through on its political aspirations.

In order to stay relevant in the Tripartite Alliance, both COSATU and the SACP were forced to tread very carefully in order to resist creating future political conflict within the newly peaceful nation. “One of the inherent problems with the SACP’s approach to political struggle: in order to maintain influence within the ANC (and try to steer it to the left), SACP leaders are forced to implement policies that are contradictory to the aims of the Party.” By implementing policies that are contradictory to the aims of the Communist Party, the SACP not only gave up on their political aspirations, but they also transferred all of the political influence they once had to a political organization that contradicts the very nature of their struggle. This political decision took much of the credibility the SACP possessed and further perpetuated its role as a submissive branch of the ANC.

By abandoning their political strength in favor of keeping the peace among the Tripartite Alliance, both the SACP and COSATU have become ineffective means through which South Africans can orchestrate their social movements. Dale McKinley, a former SACP member argues that the organization’s focus on financial issues “is actually indicative of the ideological and political bankruptcy of the SACP, what it has become. It has become reduced to an organization that is unable to take up the most basic struggles with people on the ground around basic services.” It logically follows that COSATU has similarly been reduced to an organization that cannot organize against the basic struggles it was once so brilliant at leading. Both organizations have ceased to serve as the strong fronts they were set up to be, and have become nothing but ideological roots on the proverbial tree of government, wherein the trunk is the ANC. They have buried themselves and while they still support the government, they have ceased to serve any real purpose and they are no longer seen as useful means of political movement.

COSATU and the SACP have given up the vigorous political movements they once stood for and have become passive under the Tripartite Alliance. “Today the post-apartheid government (which is led by a liberation movement and its subservient alliance partners…) pursue a form of politics which is emptied of the progressive content which characterized the 1970s and 1980s.” The progressive content that characterized the social movements of the 1970s and 1980s was the very driving force behind the formation of all three members of the Tripartite Alliance. By supporting a system that promotes the new ideas of the ANC and suppresses the core ideologies of the other two organizations in the Alliance, the new government is not doing itself any favors. As we have seen, the "political goals" of the ANC, which both opposing parties don't support, are not the true aspirations of the ANC, yet instead are externally-driven economic goals supported by international organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

When the ANC adopted GEAR, the neoliberal agenda put forth by the globalized economic sector, it not only relinquished its own political aspirations but by virtue of the interconnectedness of the Tripartite Alliance, it also renounced the political goals of both COSATU and the SACP. This political decision was the wrong one for the post-apartheid government to make, because instead of relying on the strong political organizations who brought about change in the first place, choosing to favor neoliberal economic policies placed their political faith in the “magic” of the global market. Giving up the politically oriented RDP in favor of the economically oriented GEAR delegitimized the rise to power of the Tripartite Alliance because it erased their ability to control the government. RDP placed the power to fix the problems within the country in the hands of the people, where GEAR trusted the production of economic growth to fix the problems within the country. “It is safe to say from the outset, in cases where clear social gains have been registered since 1994, (eg provision of water supply and education), these are the results of direct and concerted government intervention… rather than an outcome of the magic of the marketplace.”

Ultimately the ANC’s inability to follow through on the promises it made in the early years of the new government rendered the entire post-apartheid governmental system a disappointment, and a hollow ideological shell of the potential it once had to enact change. This is also represented in the most recent events at the University of Cape Town, as well as other universities around the country, as students and youth feel mistreated and forgotten by an unfair government focused on economic gain rather than progressing through education. Although the organizations still represent symbols of hope, it will take concerted time, effort, and restructuring to come up with an organized plan for the future in order to salvage the potential of the post-apartheid government.

This article was written by Hadley Sachs, an Occidental graduate who studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, and is a fan of "writing in quotes."


  • Richard Ballard, Adam Habib, Imraan Valodia, and Elke Zeurn, "Globalization, Marginalization and Contemporary Social Movements in South Africa," African Affairs 104 (2005): 417 doi:10.1093/afraf/adi069.
  • Fantu Cheru, "Overcoming Apartheid's Legacy: The Ascendancy of Neoliberalism in South Africa's Anti-Poverty Strategy," Third World Quarterly, 22 (2001): 4
  • Alexander Beresford, "Comrades 'Back on Track'? The Durability of the Tripartite Alliance in South Africa," African Affairs, 108 (2009): 432, 10.1093/afraf/adp021. 
  • Kirk Helliker, and Peter Vale, "Radical Thinking in South Africa's Age of Retreat," Journal of Asian and African Studies 47 (2012): 4 10.1177/0021909612442654. page 336

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