With growth stalling, joblessness at crisis levels, and governance unravelling, most South Africans cannot fathom why the ANC does not embark on meaningful reform. The answer lies in what is seldom raised: the ruling party’s unwavering determination to take the country by incremental steps from capitalism to socialism.

As I explain in my new book, COUNTDOWN TO SOCIALISM The National Democratic Revolution in South Africa since 1994, this transformation is being implemented via a Moscow-inspired ‘national democratic revolution’ (NDR) dating back many decades. Despite the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the ANC/SACP alliance still sees the NDR as offering the ‘most direct route’ to socialism in South Africa – and hence as its bedrock strategy.

In the following extract , I examine the initial phases of the NDR, following the transition to democracy in 1994.


An initial ‘political’ phase

As many of the Strategy and Tactics documents reiterate, ‘April 1994 was a historic breakthrough’ because it ushered in a new constitution and a new government in which the ANC held a 63% majority. This meant that ‘a qualitative element of the NDR had been accomplished’, as the Mahikeng document notes.

However, the ANC’s hold on power was still tenuous in many ways: ‘Because it had not won an outright victory on the battlefield, it had to accept compromises in the negotiations.’ In particular, it was obliged to accept a limited form of power-sharing, as reflected in the initial government of national unity. It also had to agree that public servants would remain in place for a period, as would the judiciary. In the words of the Mahikeng Strategy and Tactics document: ‘The ANC inherited an apartheid state machinery that was intact, orderly within its own rules, and with the majority resolved to continue in their positions.’ This meant that ‘transformation would be a long drawn-out process which would meet resistance from within’.

The prevailing climate of opinion was also hostile to the NDR in 1994. Organised business and most media commentators had celebrated the ending of apartheid and welcomed the advent of non-racial democracy. However, they were likely to oppose the statist interventions needed to advance the NDR, especially in the light of the recent collapse of the Soviet Union. They also had significant capacity to influence the battle of ideas, making it harder for the ANC to push ahead with its plans. The Mahikeng document summed up the situation, saying: ‘In brief, the democratic movement has achieved only elements of power. These give it immense possibilities to use the new situation as a beach-head to transform society. However, the constraints also have a direct bearing on the pace of transformation as well as on the … the danger of this process being derailed.’

As the SACP had urged back in 1962, in The Road to South African Freedom, the ANC’s first task was to focus on ‘the transformation of the old machinery’ of the state as a matter crucial to the success of the NDR. This would put ‘the motive forces of the revolution at the helm of the state’ and ensure that it was ‘these classes and strata which wielded real power’.

The ANC would also need to take control of all important ‘levers of power’, the Mahikeng document continued. These levers extended far beyond the civil service and the security forces (the police, defence force and intelligence agencies) to include ‘the judiciary, the public broadcaster, the media, the private sector, the universities’ and all other centres capable of influencing the battle of ideas. Ensuring adequate control would require the development of a ‘cadre policy’ to ‘ensure that the ANC played the leading role in all centres of power’. Only in this way could the organisation ‘widen and deepen’ its hold on power and ‘ensure that the agenda in the battle of ideas was not set by counter-revolution’.

Though this first phase of the NDR had a primarily political focus, the Mahikeng conference also urged the introduction or further implementation of various socio-economic policies that would lay the foundation for more thoroughgoing transformation in due course. Towards this end, it said, the ANC should focus on meeting social needs by expanding and ‘restructuring’ social grants, building more free houses for low-income households and ‘intensifying’ the land reform programme. It should also make primary healthcare ‘the main plank’ of state provision, seek to ‘reduce the cost of medicines’, ensure ‘the redistribution of educational resources’ and pursue ‘the transformation of higher education’. These interventions would initially have only a limited impact in advancing the NDR. However, as the SACP was later to stress, they would underscore the vital role of the state, rather than the private sector, in meeting people’s essential needs – and help pave the way for the ‘decommodification’ of healthcare, education, social security and other goods and services in due course.

This incremental approach to socio-economic issues was also what the global balance of forces required. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had ushered in a different global environment in which (as the ANC warned at its Stellenbosch national conference in 2002), ‘a simplistic and dramatic abolition of the capitalist market, with the state seizing the means of production’ would have been ‘a sure recipe for the defeat of the NDR’. In this changed world, the ANC could at best proceed by small steps – and generally under the rubric of redress for apartheid’s manifold injustices – towards its revolutionary goals.

However, by the time of the Polokwane national conference in December 2007, memories of Soviet failures had faded, while the developing global economic crisis was easily portrayed as proof of capi­talism’s intrinsic flaws. The ANC had also consolidated its hold on key levers of state power and successfully weakened various constitutional constraints on the NDR. In addition, President Thabo Mbeki, whom the SACP and Cosatu had increasingly condemned for the supposed ‘neoliberalism’ of his economic policies, had been ousted and replaced as ANC president by Jacob Zuma – who was expected (as Cosatu put it) to ‘nationalise exactly what the Freedom Charter said: the mining industry, the banks, the leading monopolies’.

Against this background, the Polokwane Strategy and Tactics document reflected an important shift towards the second ‘phase’ of the NDR. This shift built on what had been said at the Stellenbosch national conference in 2002 and gained further momentum at Mangaung in 2012 and then again at Nasrec in 2017.

A second and more ‘radical’ phase

The ANC’s gradual shift from the first to the second phase was heralded in the Stellenbosch Preface to the Mahikeng Strategy and Tactics document. This Preface stated:

A critical element of the programme for national emancipation should be the elimination of apartheid property relations. This requires: the deracialisation of ownership and control of wealth, including land and equity; affirmative action in the provision of skills and access to positions of management; … and systematic and intelligent ways of working in partnership with private capital in a relationship … defined by both unity and struggle, co-operative engagement and contestation on fundamental issues. It requires the elimination of the legacy of apartheid super-exploitation and inequality, and the redistribution of wealth and income to benefit society as a whole, especially the poor.

This process would involve ‘a continuing struggle’ that would intensify over time, the Preface added. ‘Because property relations are at the core of all social systems, the tensions that decisive application of this objec­tive will generate will require dexterity in tact and firmness in principle’, it said. (What this meant, in simpler terms, was that the ANC would need to combine soothing but ultimately empty reassurances – aimed at allaying rather than heeding public concerns – with a strong determina­tion to proceed with contentious NDR interventions in any event.)

The Polokwane Strategy and Tactics document in 2007 had a similar emphasis. Having described the ANC as ‘a disciplined force of the Left, organised to conduct consistent struggle’, it stressed the need ‘to change colonial production relations’. It also urged ‘the de-racialisation of [the] ownership and control of wealth’, as regards ‘land, management and the professions’.23

In 2012, when the ANC held its 53rd national conference at Mangaung, it emphasised the importance of speeding up the NDR in what it now openly described as the ‘second phase’ of South Africa’s transition.24 In the words of an ANC policy document adopted earlier that year: ‘The time has come to build a new national consensus for the next 50 years … This should lay the basis for a second transition of social and economic transformation … Our first transition was characterised by a framework and a national consensus that may have been appropriate for a political transition but has proved inadequate or even inappropriate for a second and economic transformation phase.’25

In the run-up to the Nasrec conference in 2017, the ANC intensified its NDR rhetoric. In his State of the Nation Address at the opening of Parliament in February that year, President Zuma claimed that the solution to persistent problems of poverty, inequality, and unem­ployment lay in a new emphasis on ‘radical economic transformation’ (RET). This transformation required ‘fundamental change’ in ‘the structure … of the economy’, as well as in its ‘ownership, management and control’, he said.

This formulation marked a subtle but important shift in NDR aims. For many years, the ANC had spoken of the need to ‘deracialise’ the ownership and control of the economy. This suggested to many that its aim was to transfer assets from the (private) ownership of whites into the (private) ownership of blacks. But ANC calls for RET in 2017 spoke rather of changing the ownership, control and ‘structure’ of the economy. Many commentators assumed that the goal was still to redistribute wealth from whites to blacks, but the wording used could equally herald a shift from private to state ownership, as the SACP had long urged.

To achieve its RET goals, Zuma went on, the ANC planned to ‘utilise to the maximum the strategic levers that were available to the state’. These included ‘legislation, licensing and … procurement’ rules, along with ‘BEE charters’ and ‘more direct state involvement in mining’ through a state mining company. Before long, the president also suggested that it might be necessary to resort to EWC – and that the Constitution might need to be amended to allow this.

The Nasrec Strategy and Tactics document adopted in December 2017 likewise stressed the need to ‘move into a new phase of transition’, focused on ‘decisive action to effect thorough-going economic transformation’. It called for faster action to ‘deepen social change’, adding: ‘By 2030 and moving into the 40th anniversary of 1994, all the main elements of a National Democratic Society should have been attained.’

The 2017 Nasrec document endorsed the introduction of EWC to speed up land reform (see Chapter 11) and elaborated on other goals to be achieved in the next five years. ‘The central task is to change the structure of the South African economy,’ it said, so altering ownership patterns would be ‘a critical part of economic transformation’. A state-controlled National Health Insurance (NHI) system would be introduced, while the state would start ‘directing’ the private sector to invest pension savings and other resources in ways that promoted development. A comprehensive social security system would be introduced over the next ten years, while the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) would be nationalised and its mandate ‘aligned’ with the needs of the second phase.

All these interventions would be underpinned by an increased emphasis on ‘social solidarity and empathy for the most vulnerable’. Since the current social system was ‘founded on cut-throat competition and the dictum “everyone for himself and the devil take the hindmost”’, a comprehensive ‘campaign around social values would be waged across all platforms, education curricula and religious institutions’. In this way, ‘social humanism’ would triumph over ‘crass materialism’ and South Africa would help ‘fashion a new global civilisation based on an abiding humanity’.


These ambitious NDR plans assumed continued ANC hegemony, yet public support for the ANC was slipping badly by the time of the Nasrec conference in December 2017. In the 2016 municipal election, the ruling party had lost control of three major metros: Johannesburg and Tshwane in Gauteng, along with Nelson Mandela Bay in the ANC heartland of the Eastern Cape. Public anger over widespread corruption – and especially over Zuma’s role in the ‘capture’ of the state by the Guptas, an immigrant family from India – was palpable (see Chapter 6). For much of 2017, the SACP was thus sedulous in pushing for Zuma to be replaced as president by Cyril Ramaphosa. To help build support for Ramaphosa, the SACP and many other commentators took pains to portray him as a successful businessman with a pragmatic grasp of economic realities and a personal preference for the growth-friendly policies that most South Africans wanted the ANC to embrace.32

Ramaphosa was duly elected as ANC president at Nasrec (albeit by a small margin), thereby enabling him to replace Zuma as national president in February 2018. Most commentators welcomed his presidency, believing he would use it to fulfil his oft-repeated promise of a ‘new dawn’. They also believed he was firmly opposed to the RET policies embraced by Zuma and his supporters and would in time, once he had strengthened his position within the ANC, move to block EWC and the other radical interventions the Nasrec national conference had embraced.

However, any such belief in Ramaphosa’s moderation is misplaced. Ramaphosa is a black economic empowerment (BEE) billionaire, not a risk-taking entrepreneur. He has also long endorsed the NDR, while generally taking care to conceal this commitment. His mask slipped, however, during the constitutional talks in the mid-1990s, when he partially revealed his real thoughts about the NDR in a private conversation with IFP adviser Dr Mario Oriani-Ambrosini.

As Oriani-Ambrosini records in his memoirs, Ramaphosa said: ‘The ANC [has a] 25-year strategy to deal with the whites: it will be like boiling a frog alive, which is done by raising the temperature very slowly. Being cold-blooded, the frog does not notice the slow temperature increase, but if the temperature is raised suddenly, the frog will jump out of the water.’ What Ramaphosa meant, wrote Oriani-Ambrosini, was that ‘the black majority would pass laws transferring wealth, land and economic power from whites to blacks slowly and incrementally, until the whites lost all they had gained in South Africa, but without taking too much from them at any given time to cause them to rebel or fight.’

At various times in 2022, Ramaphosa’s mask slipped further and he was more open in his endorsement of the NDR. At the SACP’s 15th national congress in July 2022, for instance, the president praised the ‘valued … and important … bonds’ between the ANC and the Communist Party. He applauded the SACP for its role ‘in advancing the fundamental transformation of the economy and society’ and endorsed its efforts to ‘build a powerful socialist movement of workers and the poor’. The ANC, he went on, was determined to ‘defeat each and every effort to derail the NDR’, which was the ‘shared programme’ of the ANC and the SACP and ‘the reason for the existence of our alliance’. The ruling party would also continue to ‘rely’ on the SACP as its ‘intellectual reservoir’ and the source of the ‘political perspectives and analyses that would help guide the ANC going forward’.

Soon afterwards, Ramaphosa told the ANC’s 6th policy conference that the ruling party had gathered ‘to discuss critical issues that concern the execution of the NDR’. Since ‘the NDR currently faced a number of challenges and perils’, the policy conference’s ‘central defining task … was to lay the basis for the restoration of the ANC and the NDR’. It also needed to ‘emerge with policy proposals to put the NDR back on track’ in the wake of Zuma-linked corruption and pervasive state delivery failures.

The mainstream media has long assumed that there is a deep ideological rift between the Ramaphosa (‘CR’) faction and Zuma’s RET one – and that it is this that has prevented the president from pressing on with his ‘new dawn’ reforms. But Ramaphosa also debunked this misperception at the policy conference, where he stressed that the fissures within the ruling party are ‘not divisions about policy or ideology’. On the contrary, they are driven solely ‘by the competition for positions … and the pursuit of access to public resources’, he said.

Since actions speak louder than words, it is also instructive to examine the policy shifts being introduced under Ramaphosa’s watch. Since becoming president in 2018, Ramaphosa has been remarkably effective, not in ushering in business-friendly reforms, but rather in implementing or advancing most of the ‘RET’ interventions proposed at Nasrec. The ‘Ramaphosa’ reassurance is thus an empty one. It is a telling, but generally unacknowledged, example of what the Stellenbosch Preface recommended back in 2012: ‘dexterity in tact’ in alleviating concerns about the NDR, coupled with ‘firmness in principle’ in advancing the revolution.

Belief in Ramaphosa’s capacity to introduce business-friendly reforms has withered in recent years – mainly because many commentators see him as too indecisive and conflict-averse to face down the RET faction within the ANC. That he shares the NDR ideology of the RET element and has in fact made great strides in advancing its agenda is still generally overlooked. His re-election as ANC president at Nasrec 2 in December 2022 was therefore hailed with considerable relief within the country and abroad. This is partly because he still seems significantly less tainted by corruption than his rivals in the ANC – but mainly because many commentators persist in portraying him as a great reformer.


Ever since it gained the ‘prime prize’ of ‘state power’ in 1994, the SACP/ANC alliance has busily been implementing the NDR in at least 17 different spheres, as set out in the chapters that follow. Detailed assessment of developments in each sphere lies beyond the scope of this beginners’ guide to the NDR. Valuable insights can, however, be gained by posing three questions in each area: (1) What are the NDR aims here? (2) What has been done to fulfil these goals? And (3) What have been the consequences? Each time, the answers provided cast a little more light on the NDR story. In combination, they help provide a bird’s eye view of how NDR interventions in all these many spheres are working together to achieve a countdown to socialism in South Africa.

COUNTDOWN TO SOCIALISM is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers and is available at Exclusive Books and other leading bookshops, and online as an eBook.

Go to: https://www.jonathanball.co.za/component/virtuemart/countdown-to-socialism

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Dr Anthea Jeffery holds law degrees from Wits, Cambridge and London universities, and is the Head of Policy Research at the IRR. She has authored 11 books, including People’s War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa and BEE: Helping or Hurting? She has also written extensively on property rights, land reform, the mining sector, the proposed National Health Insurance (NHI) system, and a growth-focused alternative to BEE.