Research and Policy Brief: The National Democratic Revolution (NDR): Its Origins and Implications - 31st May 2012.

May 31, 2012
Address by the Institute's Head of Special Research, Dr Anthea Jeffery, to the conference on ‘the national democratic revolution, land ownership, and the Green Paper on land reform’ in Pretoria on 31st May 2012.


In the post-apartheid period, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has persisted in its determination to implement a National Democratic Revolution (NDR). The ANC makes no secret of this, regularly re-affirming this objective at its five-yearly national conferences. Its commitment to continuing revolution has enormous ramifications for the country and has already cost South Africa dearly. Yet neither the goals of the NDR nor the thinking which underpins it has ever been given much attention by the Media. The topic seems to be off-limits to the Press, which earlier generally ignored the first stage of the revolution – the people’s war strategy which gave the ANC its domination over the new South Africa – and now largely overlooks the NDR and its ramifications.

Milestones in the development of the National Democratic Revolution

The ANC’s NDR has its roots in Lenin’s theory of imperialism, as articulated in 1917. According to Lenin, the living standards of the working classes in industrialised Europe were then improving rather than deteriorating (contrary to what Marx had predicted) solely because the imperial powers were able ruthlessly to exploit the brown and black masses in their colonies.

However, this theory was difficult to apply in South Africa, which had gained independence from Britain as early as 1910. But in 1950 the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) found a way around this obstacle by stating that South Africa had ‘the characteristics of both an imperialist state and a colony within a single, indivisible, geographical, political, and economic entity’. In this ‘colonialism of a special type’, white South Africa was effectively an ‘imperialist state’ and black South Africa was its ‘colony’. This meant that the wealth of white South Africans had nothing to do with enterprise, skill, or technological advantage but derived solely from the exploitation and impoverishment of black South Africans. This idea, though developed more than 60 years ago, remains central to the NDR today.

This theory was further endorsed by the South African Communist Party (SACP) in its 1962 programme, Road to South African Freedom. Here, the SACP urged a ‘national democratic revolution to destroy white domination’. The ANC, it said, must overthrow the ‘colonial state of white supremacy’, ‘democratise’ the new state by ‘making it fully representative of the population of South Africa’, use the new state to suppress the former ruling classes and transform society, and then defend the gains of the revolution through a ‘vigorous and vigilant dictatorship…by the people against the former dominating and exploiting classes’ and any attempt to ‘restore white colonialism’;

At the Morogoro Conference in 1969, the ANC endorsed this perspective and committed itself to a national democratic revolution (NDR) to correct ‘historical injustices’ by destroying existing economic and social relationships. This would give rise to a new society based on the core provisions of the Freedom Charter: a document adopted in 1955 with significant communist input.

ANC commitment to the NDR

At its national conferences at Mafikeng (in 1997), Stellenbosch (in 2002), and Polokwane (in 2007), the ANC repeatedly recommitted itself to the NDR via the Strategy and Tactics document it has adopted at each of these gatherings.

The Mafikeng document identified the key goal of the NDR as being ‘to liberate Africans in particular and black people in general from political and economic bondage’ by transforming the machinery of state, using a cadre policy to give the ANC control over ‘all centres of power’, ‘redistributing wealth and income’, and ‘de-racialising South African society’ through ‘a consistent programme of affirmative action’.

The Stellenbosch document mainly reaffirmed the 1997 one but included a short Preface which stressed the need to ‘eliminate apartheid property relations’ through ‘the deracialisation of…wealth, including land’ and the ‘redistribution of wealth and income’. This would involve a ‘continuing struggle’ which would intensify over time. ‘Because property relations are at the core of all social systems’, the tensions arising from redistribution would have to be managed via ‘dexterity in tact and firmness in principle’.

The Polokwane document (the current one) reaffirmed the need for affirmative action until such time ‘as all centres of power and influence become broadly representative of the country’s demographics’. It called for the ‘de-racialisation’ of wealth (including land), along with management and the professions. It also urged a strong state able to ‘direct national development’ and stressed the importance of cadre deployment to all centres of power.

A discussion document, prepared for the national general council of the ANC in September 2010 said the global financial crisis had demonstrated ‘the bankruptcy of neo-liberalism’ and opened up space for ‘progressive alternatives’. The discussion document identified the Freedom Charter as the ANC’s ‘lodestar’, and said the major current task of the NDR was to ‘build a national democratic society’ which would address the historical injustice via the redistribution of land and other resources, affirmative action, and ‘the eradication of apartheid production relations’.

In 2012 the ANC has released a new discussion document on The Second Transition: Building a National Democratic Society and the Balance of Forces in 2012’. This has been prepared for the ANC’s policy conference in June and its national conference at Mangaung in December this year. Though it repeats many of the same themes, it puts particular emphasis on the need for ‘freedom from socio-economic bondage’. This, it says, requires ‘a second transition’ that moves beyond democratisation (the focus of the first transition) to ‘the social and economic transformation of South Africa over the next 30 to 50 years’.

This second transition must achieve ‘real and visible progress in reducing wealth and income inequalities and in changing racial…patterns of wealth and income’. An earlier leaked draft spoke of the need to change the Constitution to make this possible. The final document is more carefully worded, but nevertheless says the current ‘framework’ (a code word for the Constitution?) ‘has proved inadequate and even inappropriate for a second social and economic transformation phase’. The implication is that this framework will thus have to be changed. In addition, the document suggests that the ANC is no longer willing to stick to an earlier ‘implicit bargain’, in which the organisation ‘committed to macroeconomic stability and international openness’, while ‘white business agreed to participate in capital reform to modify the racial structures of asset ownership and invest in national priorities’. Since this approach has not succeeded in solving poverty, unemployment and inequality, many more interventions are now needed.

The Strategy and Tactics documents, along with the 2010 and 2012 discussion documents outlined above, are public documents which are carefully phrased and often express worthy aims (to heighten state efficiency, increase economic growth, expand infrastructure, and improve education). However, they also make it clear that the ANC’s key objective is not to reduce inequality by growing the economic pie but rather by taking existing wealth from whites and transferring it to blacks. Though progress in the redistribution of wealth has thus far been slow, the ANC expects its pace to quicken as the balance of forces shifts further in favour of this.

According to the SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the NDR provides the foundation for a shift to a socialist and then communist society. The ANC does not overtly espouse this goal. Instead, it stresses that the NDR is necessary to liberate blacks from ‘political and economic bondage’ (ie from the exploitation implicit in colonialism of a special type), for only then will South Africa become a full democracy.

Some consequences of the NDR to date

In the political sphere:
First, from 1984 to 1994, the people’s war strategy was used to give the ANC the degree of domination needed to drive the NDR forward in the post-apartheid era. This required, in particular, the weakening or elimination of black opposition – and the people’s war was singularly successful in achieving this.

Second, the ANC sees itself not as an ordinary political party bound by the ordinary rules of the political game but as a national liberation movement responsible for implementing the NDR and thus as uniquely entitled to rule. This makes it contemptuous of Parliament, opposition parties, a free press, an autonomous SABC, independent civil society, and adverse electoral outcomes, as in the Western Cape. Hence, contrary to what many journalists have said, there is nothing ‘baffling’ about its recent initiatives to clamp down on the Press or weaken the Democratic Alliance in a variety of ways.

Third, the ANC does not regard itself as bound by the Constitution. It sees this not as a solemn pact but simply as a tactical compromise which can readily be changed as the balance of power shifts in the ANC’s favour. This stance has long been hinted at by ANC leaders, but is now being more openly expressed. Thus far, despite its attitude towards the Constitution, the ANC has nevertheless generally avoided overt damaging amendments to the text, such as those on floor crossing. Instead, various constitutional provisions have simply, in practice, been disregarded. These include Parliament’s duty to hold the executive to account, the need for a new electoral system after 1999, and the prohibition of cadre deployment. The NDR also means, of course, that the ANC has no principled commitment to key constitutional safeguards, including press freedom, property rights, and an independent Judiciary.

Fourth, cadre deployment has been used to give the ANC control over all the ‘levers of state power’, including parastatals and the public broadcaster. The aim is to use cadre deployment to extend ANC control to the Judiciary, the Press, business, universities, and influential organisations in civil society.

In the economic sphere:
First, the ANC has repeatedly emphasised the need for demographic representivity in employment in both the public and the private sectors. This has also been made an overt demand of both the Employment Equity Act and some elements in the black economic empowerment (BEE) codes.

Second, the goal of demographic representivity in all spheres means that targets for redistribution that fall short of this are likely to be increased in due course. Thus, for example, in revising the Mining Charter in 2010, the minister – along with many journalists – implied it was a big ‘concession’ that the ownership target was being kept at 26% by 2014; and this target may well be raised in time.

Third, part of the ANC’s aim has been to increase the power of the black working class, which the organisation sees as the main driver of the NDR. The ANC includes within this class both those who have jobs and those who do not, and may of course regard the unemployed as particularly important in driving the revolution forward. This explains policies such as the Labour Relations Act of 1995, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act of 1997, and the labour bills now in the pipeline, all of which build union power while helping to price the unskilled and inexperienced out of the job market. They also thus play an important part in generating the ‘ticking time bomb’ of massive youth unemployment.

Fourth, implementation of the NDR requires a strong ‘developmental’ state and provides a continual impetus towards ever more state intervention.

In the social sphere:
First, the NDR promotes an increasing dependence on the Government. The aim is seemingly not to encourage self-reliance and economic independence but rather to ensure that people rely on the State for money, goods, and services given to them via social grants, free housing, free basic electricity and water, free education, free health care for many, and subsidised transport.

Second, key additional aims (at least for Cosatu and the SACP) are to ‘roll back’ market provision in areas such as health and education. In the context of National Health Insurance proposals, for instance, Cosatu would like to ‘get rid’ of private health care and bring all health care services under state control, which will further reinforce dependency on the Government.

Third, similar thinking seems to underpin current proposals on land reform and rural development. As the Land Tenure Security Bill of 2010 shows – and the green paper on land reform of 2011 demonstrates even further – the aim is no longer to build up a new generation of independent black farmers owning their own land. Instead, land reform beneficiaries are to be confined to leasehold ownership, while communal land tenure in former homeland areas will be retained. In addition, those who move to the proposed new agri-villages will have nothing but temporary permits to live and farm in these settlements and will be subject to eviction by state officials if they don’t farm well enough. Far from extending land ownership to many more black South Africans, the 2010 bill and the green paper will bring about incremental land nationalisation. There will be no big-bang approach, but the Government will gradually assume ownership of ever more land while more and more South Africans find themselves without individual ownership and dependent on the State’s permission for their occupation of the land on which they live or work.

Important countervailing factors

From within the ANC:
First, the ANC recognises that the ‘balance of forces’ must be correct before progress can be made with the NDR. As with other revolutionary movements, it accepts that it may be necessary to take one step back – though its ultimate aim is then to take two steps forward.

Second, the ANC understands that the collapse of the Soviet Union brought about a fundamental shift in the global environment. This has inhibited the rapid post-apartheid implementation of the NDR which it had earlier anticipated. It continually monitors the global environment and has drawn comfort from the global economic crisis which began in 2008 and the way in which this has helped to discredit free markets. The ANC nevertheless feels the pressures arising from globalisation. These include the importance of export markets, the need for more international competitiveness, and the need to attract foreign investment.

Third, the Government has long been anxious to retain ‘sovereignty’ over South Africa. This was a key reason for the ANC’s adoption of Gear, which it saw as essential to bring down the budget deficit and avoid a debt trap which could have led to structural adjustment programmes under the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or World Bank.

Fourth, as the ANC recognised at Polokwane, affirmative action and BEE have ‘opened up enticing opportunities’ for its cadres, including ‘unprecedented opportunities for individual material gain’. This has led to corruption and bureaucratic indifference. Cosatu and the SACP are more blunt, saying it has led to a crass materialism which threatens to derail the NDR.

The ANC’s discussion documents in 2010 and 2012 also recognise that its cadres are increasingly involved in factional strife, that state resources are being used to fight internal battles within the organisation, and that the votes of ANC members are being ‘bought’ to influence electoral outcomes. This is all part of the ‘challenge of incumbency’, it says. It is thus (once again) seeking to develop ‘new’ cadres with strong self-discipline and revolutionary morality, but these attempts are no more likely to succeed than earlier efforts have done.

Constraints outside the ANC:
First, key constraints are to be found in South Africa’s long tradition of critical vigilance, coupled with its still strong Judiciary, its powerful independent Press, its vibrant official opposition, and its diverse and often outspoken civil society;

Second, South Africa also has a well-established market system and a strong private sector with top quality companies and high-level skills. Moreover, the ANC understands the importance of business in generating tax revenues and generally seeks to keep it on side;

Third, South Africa has an independent central bank and a pragmatic National Treasury, at least at senior levels.


The ANC’s commitment to the NDR means that the emphasis since 1994 has not been on stimulating growth but rather on bringing about the redistribution of existing wealth from whites to blacks. This is particularly evident in BEE rules, in mining and water laws, in land reform policies, and in recurrent calls for nationalisation (which could be used to prepare the way for confiscatory taxes or other interventions, as in the mining sector). Full implementation of the NDR will deter investment, stall economic growth, worsen poverty, and increase dependency on the State. It will undermine the Constitution, give the ANC totalitarian control, and betray the bright hopes of the 1994 transition. Fortunately, there are many countervailing factors that militate against the success of the NDR. However, there is also no room for complacency. Instead, it is vital to alert South Africans to the threats implicit in the NDR and to do very much more to expose its false premises and damaging outcomes.



Key sources in chronological order:
Strategy and Tactics of the ANC, National Conference, Morogoro, 1969
Strategy and Tactics of the ANC, National Conference, Mafikeng, 1997
Strategy and Tactics of the ANC, (Preface), National Conference, Stellenbosch, 2002
Strategy and Tactics of the ANC, National Conference, Polokwane, 2007
Building a National Democratic Society: Strategy and Tactics and the balance of forces in 2010 (Discussion document prepared for the National General Council, September 20-24 2010)
Economic Transformation Discussion Document for the 2010 National General Council
Leadership Renewal, Discipline and Organisational Culture, discussion document for the 2010 National General Council
The Second Transition: Building a national democratic society and the balance of forces in 2012,
discussion document for the ANC policy conference in June 2012



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