From Nepali Maoists: A Critique of Negotiated Betrayal in South Africa

"The road of racial rainbows and imaginary class harmony without mobilizing the people to get rid of the existing state and uproot the underlying system appealed to many, especially the middle classes among the oppressed: it is an easier road than revolution. But the problem is, as the bitter experience of South Africa of the recent past 20 years has shown once again, it is entirely illusory and imaginary."

This article is from Maoist Information Bulletin. Published by UCPN (M), International Bureau, Vol. 04, No. 13.


This is a piece published in Nepal's Maoist press against "negotiating to share political power within the old state." In other words, it should be read as a sharp polemic over contested issues facing Nepal's revolution and its Maoist leading core.

Two Decades After Mandela's Release:

20 Years of Freedom in South Africa?

The world watched elatedly 20 years ago as Nelson Mandela was finally freed from 27 years in South African jails in February 1990, so hated was the apartheid regime and all the injustice it stood for. Mandela, as one of the world's longest-held political prisoners has become a sort of living legend.

Apartheid's jails regorged with thousands of political prisoners from the decades of struggle against apartheid representing different organizations and different perspectives. Many fighters, leaders and soldiers died in detainment or were hanged in police stations, thrown out of upper-story windows and never saw a wigged white apartheid judge go through the motions of a trial. Treason was a common charge. And the masses of South African people had made enormous and heroic sacrifices during the struggle and periods of upsurge over the previous decades. Although Mandela's enemies secretly began negotiations with him in 1988, it was never a secret that their releasing political leaders and unbanning opposition groups in 1990 was a calculated step in the dismantling of apartheid and reorganisation of political rule in South Africa.

At the end of the 1980's the apartheid system of enforced racial segregation and oppression in which the black majority (including people of Indian and mixed race origin) was legally forbidden the most elementary rights was rotting at the seams under the combined weight of major social, political and economic crisis.

It was a revolutionary situation, which the white settler regime fully realized as it could no longer contain the political upsurge that had been shaking the country in waves since 1976 and reached a peak in the mid-1980's. Despite police invasion of the townships where most blacks lived, these became bases to stage different forms of struggle. Youth, students and workers, including foreign migrant workers, organized mass boycotts, stay-aways (from school, businesses and work}, strikes, fighting with the police and then funeral marches after people were gunned down. In the rural areas too, where most Africans were forced to live in phony ethnic-based reserves, people rioted against the despised bantustan authorities and their vigilante squads, fought for better land and resisted force removals as part of apartheid's territorial consolidation.

While vast sections of blacks were mobilized in one form or another to fight white rule, many thousands were also actively involved in organizations fighting for national liberation and revolution, and passionately debating the future.

President P.W. Botha's counter-revolutionary strategy, combining some reforms and modest social welfare with divide and conquer tactics among the anti-apartheid forces, utterly failed to stabilise the situation. The situation was so out of control by 1986 that the apartheid government declared emergency rule with curfews and a doubled police force that occupied the exploding townships. In the late 1980's four to five thousand people were killed. Every funeral was turned into another round of struggle. The intensity of the upsurge led the regime to ban 31 black political organizations in 1988, provoking the creation of numerous new local committees to carry on. The struggle remained at a high level into 1990.

The apartheid rulers, advised by the West, sought Nelson Mandela's help to end the crisis and smother the escalating revolutionary movement by lending credibility to a negotiated settlement with anti-apartheid organizations. They were able to buy precious time while they reorganized South Africa's political rule in ways that did not fundamentally change the socio-economic system it served and the country's role as powerhouse of Africa and guardian of imperialist interests in the region.

As it was designed to, the negotiated compromise in South Africa had a terrible effect, helping to snuff out the revolutionary aspirations of the millions of people who, at the cost of great sacrifice including their lives, threatened to pull down the regime in order to end white rule and all the vicious oppression and suffering it represented. This immense opportunity and revolutionary potential was channeled into voting for one of the 19 candidates with Mandela representing the ANC (African National Congress) that had been groomed to share state power with the slightly reformed National Party - the same reactionary party that had presided over formal apartheid for nearly 50 years. It was called a Government of National Unity. Having the right to vote for the first time in history, naturally the majority of Black people turned out in record numbers to elect the popular former political prison Nelson Mandela with hopes that the ANC would be able to deliver on its promises of liberation, returning the land to the blacks, and doing away with the inequalities and bitter subjugation they had endured for so long.

How did a so-called national liberation organization led by Mandela succeed in drowning this revolutionary process? How did it become such a willing tool of the ruling classes?

1994: Negotiating to share political power within the old state

Mandela's release from prison in 1990, along with other political prisoners, and the unbanning of numerous political organizations was a key step in launching the negotiations process for multi-party elections and the gargantuan effort to draw a large section of the black liberation movement, including many of its radically-minded intellectuals, into that process. Mandela called on people to stop the struggle, lay down their arms, to "bury the past. extend a hand". (Some examples of Mandela's class collaboration are more or less accurately portrayed in the beginning of the 2009 movie Invictus, as he sought to override mistrust among ANC employees faced with sharing the state with their previous enemies. One scene in particular depicts Mandela welcoming the same special branch security officers into his personal bodyguard who had actively hunted down and killed anti-apartheid activists.}

Heavily financed and counselled from the West, the ANC and its sister organizations, trade unions, and the SACP set about communicating the message that antagonistic struggle was no longer necessary: a peaceful electoral path would solve South Africa's tremendous problems, if blacks - the ANC - joined the government and worked from within to change the nature of the state. Aiming to gain some seats at the tables of political power as they existed with a big boost from the more liberal sections of the white capitalist class directly tied to imperialism and the imperialists themselves, who were actively working for a transition on terms favourable to their continued domination of South Africa, the ANC willingly became a political instrument of these classes and interests they had ostensibly opposed for decades. Worse, much of the ANC's own complete surrender to this plan took the form of being soldiers in the battle to politically disarm and actively demobilize broad sections of the movement against the regime at a very crucial point in history while helping convince leaders with whom it had long-standing disagreements - whose rank and file had shed blood over - to join in the negotiations project.

Mandela and prominent clergy like Desmond Tutu lead the way to these 'talks about talks', as they were dubbed. Given the sharp tensions over different programmes and struggle against the non-revolutionary politics of the ANC, naturally disputes and misgivings arose among the various participating liberation groups, including the PAC, Azapo, left ANC splinter groups, Trotskyist circles inside and outside of the ANC and others, some temporarily pulling out or arguing for interim "guarantees" such as a Constituent Assembly. But the "miracle" the bourgeoisie and its international partners achieved was to bring most of these black political leaders into the same tent of compromise. If successful, the US imperialists were eager to apply this model to other conflict-ridden states and former colonies that needed to be politically stabilized as post WW2 arrangements increasingly were becoming outmoded.

An important component of the model was to build up the black middle and better-off classes that had a material stake in the system and to appeal to those who aspired to be part of the elite. In turn they would help continue to persuade the country's majority poor population they didn't need to overthrow capitalism, but must instead "take part" in developing it, which required making peace with those at the top - both black and white.

One of the other great myths about the South African transition was that was peaceful. The negotiated agreement was cemented in a combination of talks AND violence.

When the international bourgeois press crows that "civil war was avoided" it means there was no open "race war" between white extremist groups - which were more or less neutralized and pulled into political compromise as well - and the black masses. In reality, the world witnessed a very bloody process of apartheid moulting to share political rule in the early 1990's in which over 13 thousand black lives were lost.

Open fighting repeatedly broke out or was orchestrated between the ANC or other political organizations and the right-wing Zulu nationalists of Gatsha Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party and its paramilitary forces, supported by police and security forces or by conservative white groups threatening to destabilize elections. In addition, sharp contradictions over the political differences between the moderate United Democratic Front, the ANC and its more rebellious youth base on the one hand, and Azapo and other political groupings in and around black consciousness movements and PAC on the other hand, often took a violent form. Thirdly, state violence to repress the rising struggle of the people (portrayed from the perspective of the future in the "science fiction" film District 9 as an armed onslaught against the masses of alien "prawns" was in fact a daily reality in the townships and resulted in several massacres after 1990 from Bisho in the Ciskei to Sebokeng in Gauteng.

The road of racial rainbows and imaginary class harmony without mobilizing the people to get rid of the existing state and uproot the underlying system appealed to many, especially the middle classes, among the oppressed. It is an easier road than revolution. But the problem is, as the bitter experience of South Africa of the recent past 20 years has shown once again, it is entirely illusory and imaginary.

In reality, the society is nearly as segregated as ever - minus the legal apartheid scaffolding supporting it. Despite a rising and very visible black middle class, inequalities between rich and poor have actually increased. New political freedoms, while greater than under white rule, are mainly channeled into pressuring the ANC in government for more service delivery and exercising a vote to keep them in power. Twenty years ago, a whole generation was ready to tear up the place for something new, different and truly liberating.

At the same time, many people's experience had taught them to distrust the negotiated outcome and they were (and still are) bitterly angry at being dragged into this deception - trading the masses' revolutionary struggle in for the chance to vote for a black government that, despite its populist promises, is in fact governed by the needs and requirements of the global capitalist-imperialist system that such posturing serves. Struggles continued to erupt against the ANC's betrayal of the people but the giant tide to become citizens in a liberal democracy had a powerfully debilitating effect, as it was intended to, polarizing things in a very unfavourable way for revolution.

People in this conversation

  • Guest - balzac

    I think it's important to consider that the pseudo-compromise which was brokered at the time was not just done by self-interested would-be elites, but also by people who considered the actions (such as voting rights) to be the first step in a long process of structural change - which obviously did not happen, but this was not obvious to many of them at the time. To say that these politics were collaborationist at the time is not entirely true, as many people had expectations for far greater changes once actual elections were held; it is reformist and anti-revolutionary, but the people who push these things are certainly not all acting out of class interest, and some genuinely believe that this sort of nonviolent transformation is possible.

    We must also be aware that much of the support for avoiding a full-on race war in the South African case came out of a sense that if the war did happen, there was no guarantee that the revolutionary forces would win and, given the participation of groups like the Inkatha Freedom Party and their collaboration with the Apartheid state, it is actually likely revolutionary forces would have lost. The National Party was perfectly willing to slaughter any number of millions and had the military capacity to do so, and the US, Britain, and Israel were all perfectly willing to tacitly provide military help - they had been doing so for quite a while, and would not have increased their participation if British mining interests became threatened. The context of the time is very important, as the collapse of the Soviet Union and loss potential aid from China drastically reduced the chances of a revolutionary uprising which gaining military support (in terms of training and equipment) from the outside, and made the prospects of even a successful revolution grim. It was the ending of the Cold War which simultaneously enabled the 'peace' process and also what clipped the military capacity of the revolutionary movement.

  • Guest - entdinglichung

    the Link to the Maoist Information Bulletin does not work

  • Guest - Thomas

    I think the pull quote you've chosen to put at the top of the article is more or less correct, but the path by which it is arrived at doesn't seem to be. Balzac begins to get at that. This is totally absent of a variety of key details and considerations for many South African activists and revolutionaries <i>at their time</i>--and its broadness doesn't help identify the critical junctures or political trends and considerations that led to the (sorry) state of affairs today.

    I'm glad to see this, though, and think that we should actually engage in a very thoroughgoing investigation and study of the South (revolution? reform?).

  • Guest - nando


    I suspect this article on South Africa was written as a warning (by Nepali revolutionaries to Nepali revolutionaries) about where some things go. That may be why the article isn't about how things look "at their time" -- because the readers (in Nepal) are all too familiar with their own pulls "at this time."

    The broadness flows from that quality... it is analogy (structured out of an actual analysis of previous experience).

    And there are some particular features: There has been a lot of debate over the discussions of army integration (since this was proposed in 2006 in Nepal). As you may know, for UN and western thinktanks, the model of army integration is South Africa (where the ANC's Spear of the Nation was subsumed by the South African army).

    However for the Nepali Maoists -- the plans for "army integration" are a demand for control over the Nepal Army, the preservation of the Peoples Liberation Army and ultimately break up of the key remaining Royalist institution (in the name of its "democratization"). This article is written in the context of the promotion of South Africa as an example by all those forces who want the Nepali Maoists to "join the mainstream" (rather than create a new revolutionary mainstream framework) -- and it is a polemic against that promotion.

  • While this article is interesting as a document of the struggle within the revolutionary movement in Nepal, it leaves much to be desired as an analysis of the complex situation that confronted revolutionaries in South Africa two decades ago. Balzac touches on several of those points. It is important to note this because it is precisely these sorts of arguments by analogies that often produce the sort of schematic verdicts on historical experiences that Kasama has been at pains to oppose. In this case we see it being done in the name of an orientation most of us are presumably sympathetic with.

    We therefore need to be very careful to disentangle the polemical objectives of this article which we agree with from the historical oversimplification that have their own seductive pull, but that we need to resist.

    We take it for granted that there was a revolutionary situation in South Africa on the eve of the negotiated end to apartheid. And perhaps there was. But we need to be careful to avoid here the common view among many revolutionaries in the US (and elsewhere) that the whole of the global south is more or less always ripe for revolution.

    The proof, it seems to me, is in the pudding. The negotiated settlement succeeded because the struggle against apartheid was always an alliance between revolutionary socialist or communist forces and a broader national democratic movement. By answering the central demands of the national democratic movement the negotiated settlement defused or at least postponed the seeming revolutionary situation.

    This brings us back, I think, to our perpetual discussion of the relationship between electoral and revolutionary work. Every successful revolution over the past two and a half centuries has occurred in a country where political participation through competitive elections was effectively blocked and this has powerfully shaped how revolutionaries imagine revolutions occurring.

    The problem is that in the last decades of the 20th century the number of states where this condition exists have been greatly reduced in number, in some instances as a result of negotiated settlements in the face of apparent revolutionary situations (South Africa and Central America), but in many others simply because it is the political form actually most preferred by global capital. The traditional road to revolution in which brittle governments with little claim to popular legitimacy are overthrown by military action (whether insurrectionary or guerrilla) led by dedicated revolutionaries is less and less a real option in most of the world. (The situation in Nepal here is quite anomalous but also presents elements of this problem even though the ostensibly national democratic forces of Congress and UML are so completely discredited.)

    Rather more and more of the world is characterized by the sort of situation that confronted the revolutionaries in Western and Central Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Russian revolution and the First World War where more or less liberal democratic states successfully repelled multiple revolutionary initiatives. As I have suggested elsewhere, the theoretical work of Lukacs and Gramsci were aimed at solving these dilemmas and are ignored by revolutionaries at our peril.

    Liberal democratic institutions, even ones that are quite obviously flimsy, have proven enormously effective in containing and repelling revolutionary movements that act like the states that they are fighting are no different than the Russian autocracy or the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua.

    The successful revolutions (to the degree that they can be called that) that have occurred since 1979 have all passed through electoral processes. Here the Venezuelan and Bolivian cases are the most exemplary. But we should also study the experience of Ecuador and -- pregnant pause -- the various so-called "color revolutions" promoted by the US State Department in the former Soviet Union and its former spheres of influence/control. One need not have any illusions about the character of these latter events to recognize that they have things to teach us about the role of electoral processes in legitimizing insurgent forces. Forcing a ruling group to commit a widely recognized electoral fraud or to otherwise nullify an election is one way that formally democratic processes can give way to a revolutionary rupture.

    The US State Department strategy of "color revolutions" has relied heavily on the theoretical work (and consultations!) of Gene Sharp, whose 3 volume "Politics of Non-Violent Action" remains an important global comparative study of the effective use of (more or less non-violent) mass action to bring about social and political change of various sorts. On need not embrace Sharp's pacifism (the hypocrisy of which in his case is starkly underlined by his pimping for US imperialism) to recognize the importance of his central insights to the development of effective revolutionary strategy for the 21st century.

  • Guest - Artemi0


    Your right- the link does not work. But it is the URL that is listed on that issue of the Maoist Information Bulletin's physical copy. Also above issue- vol 4 #13 isn't dated, but contain's dated references as late as April 2010. First came across a physical copy in late april- on the eve of the May 1st general strike.

    From this data- Nando is correct to infer that there was and is intense struggle within the Nepali Maoist leadership and rank about the road forward. It's not really so much a thourough summation of the South African experience, but a polemic and a warning (not aimed at south african revolutionaries 2 decades ago per se) from some revolutionaries in the International Bureau concerning a path that should not be travelled, and if it is travelled there may be consequence.

    Frankly- I am amazed that this struggle is more or less in the open for the world to see and weigh in on- in their english language publications. The Nepali Maoist's english language publications are not their first priority, but they are giving significant attention to it. The past few issues of Red Star, articles posted here on SARev illuminate this. They published several issues in rapid succession in english highlighting the line strggle that exist's within their party and revolution.

    So it appears that our comrades are stuck in a situation of protracted stalemate. Right now today- proletarian forces in Nepal maybe are to weak to win (right now), to strong to lose (right now). So this question of stalemate, and the line struggle it involves, are very heavy and has been weighing on my mind.

    a few question I have are-
    what is the constellation of forces that overcoming stalemate would require?
    Under the best possiable and worst imaginable circumstances- What is the timeframe?
    What if the stalemate continue's? How do we judge it?

    In chess- a perfect stalemate is the end in a draw. In real life political struggle- this political struggle- All forces are stalemated. Everyone is white knuckling and maneuvering within that framework. I suspect that this can go on for quite some time until one side or the other makes a mistake or a brilliant move.

  • Guest - Spirit of Zwickau

    I'll be in the minority and say this article is excellent, and eloquantly hits very close to home in the Nepalese situation.

    The ruling-class pig Mandela's name has been showing up lately in sordid news stories:

    Down with the entire bourgeoisie!

  • Guest - balzac

    I do realize that this article should be mostly understood as a polemic regarding the situation in Nepal. However, there is a danger in using limited history for polemical purposes in that it gives validity to a particular historical framework which may be overly simplified (in this case) or downright false (as happens often with the French Revolution) which then becomes accepted as the historical narrative for that time/space. I was simply adding the stuff about the South African situation not to alter the fundamental point of the article, but to give a background as to the motivations for the reasons why the South African situation resolved the way it did. Given my limited knowledge of Nepal, I would say that the odds are a lot better for a revolutionary armed struggle to succeed - the primary consideration in this case will be the question of whether other countries see a successful revolution there as a threat and whether or not they will have the military capacity to actually do anything about it; the global financial crisis, in this sense, could be a boon, as would the already heavy engagement of US and Indian military forces.

  • Guest - Artemi0


    Fair enough. As far as narrative, time and space go- this particular article needs to be situated in context.

    It is not a thourough analysis and critiqique of the South African revolution (chapters and volumes have been written already)- this short article spans 6 mini pages in an irregular publication put out by the Nepali Maoist's international bureau. It sketches out an analysis, in as you say simplified terms, easily read, popular- and in english.

    I want to emphasize- communicating in english for our comrades in Nepal, is an impressive accomplishment, and not their primary focus. They publish daily papers in Nepali, weekly papers in Nepali- have kathmandu valley radio station's purely political- and others that give you the weather and traffic etc. along with popular/local music and culture. TV stations even, and sympathetic but not partison stations that broadcast nitty gritty details on the struggle and revolution. This is a broad sketch as to their media apparatus (simplified). That is the "space" in which this article appears.

    "time"- it was published on the eve of the general strike. A time not that dissimilar to now- of intense struggle and debate about the road forward.

    Narrative-not really so sure here. The article isn't signed by a particular author, all that we know is that it is in a publication from the international bureau.

    TNL is right in saying this short article in a semi-reular english language publication leaves much to be desired as far as analysis goes when it comes to the incredibly complex sitution 20 yrs ago of the decisions and maneuvers revolutionaries made/accepted through the twists and turns of the moment. Perhaps Kasama/SARev should post a more fleshed out piece for discussion sometime soon?

    I agree with Nando, Mike, and Hetty- that the meat here is in the sub-text. It's not really about the particulars of the trumpcated South African revolution. It's more about the Nepali revolution and the twists and turns it is facing by way of analogy.


    looking forward to this discussion

  • Guest - balzac

    The time/space bit I meant referred to the South African situation addressed in the article (from 1988-94, roughly).

    My clarification as to the historical details should not be taken as an attempt to undercut what is being said here as polemic in its application to the current situation in Nepal, more to point out the historical frame of reference for South Africa had a number of other considerations which pushed the struggle for reform to success while the struggle for revolution foundered.

    All in all, the situation in South Africa is illustrative of why reformist measures do not work, and that should be a given to any of us here; if anything, the points I have made should indicate why the Nepalese people have a much greater capacity for choosing a potentially <b>successful</b> revolution than South Africans did; i.e. why the two scenarios are different, not the same.

  • I want to echo Balzac here.

    What seems striking to me is the ways that the differences between the situation in South Africa and Nepal are MORE favorable for a revolutionary outcome in Nepal if it is pursued. Despite the serious political crisis the apartheid state faced, it was a robust state with the economic base and all the functioning institutions that implies.

    It served a developed capitalist ruling class with strong ties to the US and UK and that class was able to carry through an internal reorientation on the question of apartheid that laid the basis for the negotiated settlement with the ANC, the leadership of which had also developed relations with imperial elites.

    While it was a settler colonial state that excluded the black majority from political citizenship, it had many features of a liberal democratic state (like Israel today or the Jim Crow Southern US back in the day), a parliament, even competing political parties, and an independent judiciary, that greatly facilitated the expansion of citizenship rights when that was finally decided on.

  • Guest - land

    In South Africa things were on the edge. As the article says "It was a revolutionary situation, which the shite settler regime fully realized as it could no longer contain the political upsurge that had been shaking the country in waves sinve 1976 and reached a peak in the mid 1980's. The description of what was going on in the townships is accurate.

    TNL questions (I think) whether there was a revolutionary situation or if there was not to assume too much. I think it was a revolutionary situation which is why the US stepped in to help free Mandela and put a lid on the growing ferocity against the apartheid regime. I remember reading one account of Mandela coming to one of these townships and before his arrival how the youth who were in the midst of daily battles with the police were looking forward to Mandela's arrival. And when he arrived he told the youth to throw their weapons into the sea.
    Imagine the confusion. Their hero, a legend for the people, tells them to give up their arms and give up their resistance.

    There is always the pull to give it up. South Africa didn't have a revolutionary party that could withstand this. And I think the Maoists in Nepal are giving a warning. And I think they do have a revolutionary party that can withstand this but there is nothing predetermined about the ways things will go. It is what is being debated at this time. And we need to be part of this debate. And there is no better example than South Africa of this betrayal of the people.

    This article by the Maoists in Nepal is sounding the alarm. As the article says "twenty years ago a whole generation was ready to tear up the place for something new, different and truly liberating." And today there is only an illusory change with Mandela as the spokesperson of that illusory change.

    Revolutionaries need their army. As Mao said "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

  • Guest - land

    There is alot more to this than I have written. And I like reading over the other posts.

    Let me know what you think. Sometimes I get responses and sometimes not. And I want the responses and debate.

  • Guest - balzac

    I don't disagree that there was a possibility for revolution in South Africa at the time, I am just pointing out that the situations were very different in that the US and UK were willing to provide military support for the Apartheid government and the armed forces there were well trained, armed, and capable of being mobilized, and that it we only see it as a 'betrayal' in retrospect. At the time there were a number of considerations for revolutionaries, one the main ones being whether a revolution could succeed. For me, the answers for South Africa in 1989 and Nepal in the present are very different: a revolution would not have succeeded in South Africa while one is certainly possible in Nepal right now. Negotiated betrayal may be on the table for now and in both places people were/are willing to fight, but that is where the similarities end. The Nepalese Maoists are coming from a much stronger position given that external intervention will be far more limited (given the present financial crisis and already heavy engagement of capitalist armies around the world, as well as not as heavy interest in resources/location as in South Africa). Revolution COULD have been possible in South Africa if the Soviet bloc was not collapsing at the time, and I would say that it's no small coincidence that peace with the ANC and Umkhonto We Sizwe was made AFTER the Soviet Union had completely fallen. Despite its problems, the USSR did have a record for helping fund/provide arms for many anti-colonial movements around the world, and the South African Communist party had a very credible track record in building the revolutionary movement against Apartheid.

  • Guest - Diarmuid Breatnach

    Thanks, I have written something similar but without the details on the number of deaths -- do you have a source for those?

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