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The ANC and the Irish Peace Process

J. M. Thorn

"My belief is that Ireland is travelling the same painful road as South Africa and is destined to achieve the same success.  I do not consider one clear-cut solution of the Irish question possible at present . . . Irish unity should be he ideal to which the whole process is directed.  I do not ask you to give up your ideal, but only to realise it in the only way that is presently practicable.  Freedom will lead inevitably to unity."

This assessment of the current political situation was delivered by a senior South African politician to Sinn Fein leaders at a secret meeting in Dublin as the party was preparing to enter the Irish peace negotiations.  The South African had come to Ireland at the request of the republican leaders.  As someone who had a background in armed struggle, went on to be a leading member of the government of his country, and had won the respect of the British, his words carried some weight.  Irish Republicans could trust and identify with him.  However, this person was not Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki or Cyril Ramaphosa.  He was not even a member of the African National Congress (ANC).  And the Sinn Fein leaders he met did not include Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness.  This was because the meeting took place not in the 1990's but the 1920's.

The South African was the former Boer general and the then Prime Minister Jan Smuts, and the Sinn Fein leaders were Eammon DeValera and Arthur Griffith.  It was 1921, and Sinn Fein was about to enter negotiations with the British over the constitutional status of Ireland.  These negotiations produced the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which created the 26-county Irish Free State as a dominion within the British Commonwealth.  The degree to which the example of South Africa or the intervention of Jan Smuts influenced Sinn Fein towards accepting the Treaty may have been minor.  However, what they did provide was an ideological justification for the acceptance of such an arrangement.

There are strong echoes of Smuts' appeal to Sinn Fein in Michael Collins' famous defence of the Treaty that it created the freedom to achieve freedom.  It is important to note that the British were also supportive of South African involvement in Ireland.  Indeed, before his meeting with the republicans, Jan Smuts had drafted the speech that the King delivered at the opening of the Ulster Parliament.  Britain saw the Irish question in similar terms to how they viewed South Africa during the period of the Boer war, and hoped for a similar solution.  A solution that left them in overall strategic and economic control, but which allowed for the development of a local ruling class.  For both Britain and Irish Republicans, Jan Smuts was the embodiment of such an accommodation.

Although separated by over seventy years, there are strong parallels between the intervention by South Africans in the 1920's and that which is currently happening.  The assumption underlining both is that the example of South Africa should influence decision making in Ireland.  This has stemmed primarily from the Irish republican identification with the nationalist struggles in South Africa, whether it is the revolt of the Boers against British imperialism (a common enemy), or the struggle of blacks against the apartheid regime.  Of course the corollary of identifying with struggles in South Africa is also to identify with the settlements that brought these struggles to an end.  This is why the current leadership of Sinn Fein has sought to draw parallels between the Irish peace process and the transition in South Africa.

It matters little how genuine the comparison really is. The purpose of such comparisons is for Sinn Fein to associate itself with a process, which in 'nationalist' terms has been successful, and to provide ideological support for its own actions.  The intended inference is that, like the ANC, Sinn Fein is pursuing a strategy that will achieve its objective.  In this schema it follows that if the transition in South Africa can deliver majority rule, then the peace process will deliver an Irish Republic. While the influence of South Africa has been primarily ideological, there have been a number of important practical interventions that have flowed from it.  What follows is an examination of the transition in South Africa, and the degree to which it has had an ideological and practical influence on the Irish peace process.

South Africa: A model of transformation?

The achievement of majority rule in South Africa came about as a result of both elite negotiations and mass action.  An example of the former was the concept of "sunset clauses" put forward by Joe Slovo of the South African Communist Party (SACP).  In a paper entitled  "Negotiations: What room for compromise?"" he argued that the white minority should be offered inducements to make them less resistant to majority rule.  These included the constitutional protection of property rights, the retention of apartheid era employees, and a transitional period of compulsory power sharing.  This proposal was adopted by the ANC leadership and formed the basis of its agreement with the National Parry.  However, it is doubtful whether the transition to majority rule would have come about without mass action.  It was the upheaval that followed the assassination of popular ANC leader Chris Hani that forced the government to agree to an election date, and it was the uprisings in the so-called independent homelands that defeated the attempt by the right to subvert it.  The skill of the ANC lay in being able to control the anger of the black masses and demonstrate that it was the only force that could stabilise South Africa.  The choice for white South Africa was clear: either it accepted the reasonable demands of the ANC or face the possibility of something more threatening.  In the end whites chose to give up their absolute control over the state in order to preserve their privileged hold over the economy.

Of course the end of apartheid gave rise to the expectation amongst blacks that there would be social as well as political change in South Africa.  There was pressure from the ANC's trade union allies in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) for a transformation programme.  This gave rise to the formulation of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP).  With firm commitments to house building, land reform, job creation, the expansion of public services and infrastructure, the programme became ANC's official manifesto in South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994.  However, even before the elections there were doubts over the ANC commitment to the RDP.  As part of a Transitional Executive it secretly negotiated a loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  To qualify for the $850 loan, the parties in the TEC had to sign a Letter of Intent (Statement of Policies).  This set out the economic policies that a future government should follow if it was to qualify for the loan.  These policies included: reducing the budget deficit to 6 per cent of GDP, containing state spending, restraining wage demands, promoting investment, liberalising trade, and not raising taxes.  Al of which put the Letter of Intent at odds with the RDP.

These contradictions became clear when the ANC entered into government.  When converted into government policy, the RDP bore little resemblance to its original form.  The targets and time scales for RDP objectives were removed, and the mechanism for achieving them was shifted away from the State  to the private sector.   Government policies were based primarily on attracting private capital.  An example of this was the government's housing policy.  As Housing Minister, Joe Slovo did a deal with the banks and insurance companies to end rent boycotts in order to secure loans.  The man once portrayed by the authorities as the guiding hand behind unrest in South Africa was now dubbed the 'boycott buster'.  Another example of a market-based approach was on land reform.  With 87 percent of productive land in the hands of white farmers, the case for land redistribution in South Africa was overwhelming.  The RDP therefore had a target of redistributing 30 per cent of agricultural land in a period of five years.  Yet when in government the ANC based its land reform policy on a "wlling-buyer, willing-seller" scheme.  Land could only be transferred if it was bought at the market value from the existing owners.  Of course such prices were beyond the resources of disposed communities.  Also, despite the government doing its utmost to reassure private capital, there was no significant injection of finance into these sectors.  The only funding for house building and land reform were meagre State grants.  As a consequence the results of transformation in these areas have been very poor.  The house-building programme has only built half of the one million new houses envisaged in the RDP, and the land reform programme has only redistributed 0.6 per cent of agricultural land.  This poor performance has been repeated across a whole range of transformation policies.

In the early post apartheid period, the conservatism of the government was blamed on the presence within it of the National Party.  However, when it withdrew from the government in 1996, the ANC's economic policy took another sharp turn to the right.  This was heralded by the unveiling if the GEAR strategy, which proposed the abolition of exchange controls, the lowering of trade barriers, cuts in public spending, and wholesale privatisation of State assets.  The ANC had embraced an unashamedly neo-liberal agenda.  Significantly, unlike the RDP, this programme was formulated in secret and presented as a fait accompli.   There had been no consultation between the ANC government and its allies in COSATU and the SACP.  The main beneficiaries of these policies were the huge corporations, such as Anglo-America that dominate the South African economy.  With the end of apartheid these corporations had been freed from the sigma of racism, now under an ANC government they were being freed from the restrictions that had been imposed upon them by the South African State.  The most obvious example of this was ANC approval for these large corporations to move their share listing from South Africa to London.

The relationship between capital and the ANC government has not been all one-way.  South African companies have been pivotal in supporting the main theme of ANC policy - black economic empowerment.  Through the transfer of assets to black owned companies, they have helped to create a black capitalist class.  Among this new black business elite are prominent ANC cadres such as Cyril Ramaphosa, who were transformed into millionaires almost overnight.  While this class is relatively small and totally dependent on white owned financial institutions and corporations, it does help create the impression that race/class identification is breaking down and deflects the charge of racial capitalism.  However, the real motor for the promotion of a black elite has been the State.  This has been achieved primarily through appointments, anti-discrimination legislation, and State procurement.  The combination of liberal policies and black economic empowerment has lead to an increasing class differentiation amongst South Africa's black population.  For while there has been an emergence of a black elite, conditions for the black masses have not changed, and for the most marginal section of the black population things has actually deteriorated.  In reacting to the failure of its policies, the ANC has become increasingly populist, blaming whites and counter-revolutionary forces for sabotaging transformation.  It has also become increasingly authorisation, cracking down on dissent, and discouraging debate within the alliance.  Those who have criticised government policies have been accused of racism and aiding the ANC's enemies.

Most of the opposition to the government's policies has come from the trade union movement.  In both 1998 & 99, COSATU staged national strikes against redundancies and the neo-liberal drift of economic policy.  There has been bitter opposition from public sector unions in Johannesburg to ANC's controlled council's plans to privatise the city's public services, and COSUU is threatening to stage a national strike over proposed changes to the law that weaken protection for workers.  Despite this trade union based opposition to the ANC's policies, there has not been a serious political challenge.  The SACP has made mild criticism of the government, but has mostly provided a left rational for the ANC's actions.  While holding on to the illusion that it is fighting for the soul of the ANC, in reality it has capitulated to a neo-liberal agenda.  Indeed, some of its key members are among Thabo Mbeki's closest advisors and are directly responsible for the formulation of government policy.  Those SACP members who have made serious criticism of the government have been disciplined and even expelled.

While the ANC has achieved its historic objective of majority rule, it has failed to fundamentally change the socio- economic structure of South African society.  It has accommodated the needs of the masses to the requirement of capitalist accumulation, while using populist rhetoric to cover the self-enrichment of its own cadres.  In this, South Africa is repeating the same pattern followed majority rule and independence in Kenya and Zimbabwe in an earlier period.

The ANC and the Irish Peace Process

Comparisons between Ireland and South Africa have long been a feature of Irish republican rhetoric.  In the 1980's, such comparisons emphasised the concept of common struggle and solidarity of oppressed peoples'.  However, in the 1990's, with the dramatic changes in South Africa, this shifted to the concept of negotiations and political settlement.  When comparing Ireland with South Africa, Sinn Fein leaders talked not of struggle but of historic compromise.  In this period, one of Gerry Adams's most common calls was for Unionism to produce a de Klerk.  Throughout the course of the peace process, Sinn Fein has sought to draw parallels between Ireland and South Africa.  Whatever the accuracy of such parallels, there is no doubt that its example has acted as a spur and a justification for republicans.

Yet, it is not the case that the emphasis on South Africa as a model for Ireland is coming only from Sinn Fein.  The ANC has also pushed this view, and has given active support to the republican leadership's peace strategy.  The earliest example of this was Nelson Mandela's first visit to Ireland in July 1990, when he called for direct negotiations between the British government and the IRA.  In 1994, Thabo Mbeki offered to put South Africa's experience at the disposal of the parties in Northern Ireland.  Throughout the period of the peace process there have been numerous visits to South Africa by Irish politicians.  In June 1995, Gerry Adams visited South Africa and held talks with Nelson Mandela.  One of the most important meetings held in South Africa was the Arniston Conference in 1997.  Hosted by the Ministry of Constitutional Development, it brought all the Northern Ireland parties together to meet with the politicians who were instrumental in bringing about South Africa's transition. This conference was also addressed by Nelson Mandela, who shared his thoughts with the parties on the challenges of negotiating political settlements.

ANC influence on the peace process has been exerted most powerfully when its cadres have visited Ireland to give support to the Sinn Fein leadership.  The most obvious example of this was its role in winning grassroots republican support for the Belfast Agreement.  In April 1998, an ANC delegation visited Dublin and Belfast at the request of Sinn Fein.  This delegation included the Constitutional Affairs Minister, Valli Moosa, Provincial Premier, Matthews Phosa, and Cyril Ramaphosa.  The fact that the ANC had sent three of its top cadres shows how seriously it was taking its intervention.  Although it met a number of political parties, the important meetings were with republicans.  The most significant of these was a meeting with IRA prisoners at the Maze, which was conducted jointly by Sin Fein's Gerry Kelly and the ANC's Cyril Ramaphosa.  The ANC cadres also joined Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in the Ulster Hall in Belfast to address a republican rally, at which they strongly endorsed the Belfast Agreement.  Interventions by the ANC have continued in the last couple of years, with its cadres attending and speaking at critical Sinn Fein conferences.

The most high profile ANC intervention in the peace process has been the appointment Cyril Ramaphosa as one of the international inspectors to oversee the opening up of IRA weapons dumps.  According to a report in The Observer, ANC cadres were deeply involved in producing the IRA's initiative on arms.  The key figure in this was one time commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe and former ANC cabinet minister,  Sathyandranath 'Mac' Maharaj.  It is reported that he held a secret meeting with IRA leaders in Belfast in February 2000, shortly after the British Government suspended the short-lived new Executive, to find a way of breaking the decommissioning deadlock.  He then reported back to his ANC colleagues, including Cyril Ramaphosa, that a formula for dealing with the arms issue was possible.  That formula became clear in May 2000 when the IRA issued a statement on the inspection of its arms dumps, and Ramaphosa was subsequently appointed as one of the two international inspectors.  The role of the ANC is this process was to lend credibility to the republican leadership's major shift on arms.  Ramaphosa's involvement was clearly seen as way of making the opening up of arms dumps more natural to grassroots republicans.

Although the ANC may not have the political power of Bill Clinton or the financial muscle of Irish America, it has all the authority of  "liberation struggle" credentials, something that carries weight with republican activists.  On an ideological level, it is seen as a national liberation movement that has successfully achieved its objectives, and an example to be followed by Sinn Fein.  Its endorsement of the Belfast Agreement and its involvement in the decommissioning problem aids the Sinn Fein leadership in winning over its supporters to the peace process.

The ANC and Irish Republicans

The role of South Africans in the peace process has derived primarily from the Irish republicans ideological and strategic identification with the ANC.  Both are nationalist movements that have used armed force to pursue their objectives.  Both define their struggles in terms of national liberation.  Both are petit-bourgeois led movements.  And both have as their immediate goal the achievement of democratic rights, whether that is majority rule or an Irish Republic.

The essential elements of the nationalist ideology they share also draw on elements of Stalinism.  Developed first by Joseph Stalin in relation to China in the 1920's, and refined in the period of anti-colonial struggles during the 60s & 70's, it has been adopted to varying degrees by radical nationalist movements all over the world.   Its key concept of the  'national democratic revolution' identifies two separate stages to the achievement of socialism in the colonial world.  The first being the winning of national independence, and the second a transition to socialism.  In the case of the ANC, this schema came directly from the SACP.  It has provided the theoretical foundations of ANC strategy and organisation for over forty years.   The policies of the ANC in government are ultimately defended on the basis that they are advancing the national democratic revolution.  While Sinn Fein's version of this ideology is not as theoretically developed, it adheres to the same basic elements.  Formally, Sinn Fein still has as its objective the establishment of a national democracy.

This ideology appeals to nationalist movements because it enables them to speak to different constituencies and build a cross class alliance.  They can hold out the promise to workers that national independence will lead to social transformation, while at the same time reassuring capitalism that little will change.  The timing and nature of a transition to socialism is always vague and ill defined.  This is because these movements, despite their rhetoric, do not have a commitment to socialism.  They are petit-bourgeois movements that have as their primary objective the development of indigenous capitalism. Where such movements have come to power, they have pursued an unequivocally pro-capitalist agenda.   While often justified in terms of 'empowerment' or 'equality' or even 'socialism', these concepts have been nothing more than a populist cover for the enrichment of a small elite.   Among this new elite there is usually a high concentration of ruling party cadres.

In government, both the ANC and Sinn Fein have embraced an unashamedly neo-liberal agenda (privatisation, corporate tax cuts, wage restraint, etc.)  Both have used populist rhetoric to cover their move to the right, whether that is "black empowerment" or the "equality agenda" (the further the movement rightwards the more strident the rhetoric).  And both have used the patronage of the State to reward their own supporters.  In South Africa, the ANC does this through State appointments and procurement.  Sinn Fein exercises its power of patronage through the publicly funded 'community sector' in nationalist areas of the north.

Although there are many similarities between the ANC and Sinn Fein, and it can be seen how one has influenced the other, there is one critical difference.  The ANC has achieved its basic objective; Sinn Fein has not.  South Africa has black majority rule, but Ireland does not have a Republic.  Unlike the Belfast Agreement, the outcome of negotiations in South Africa, in terms of the political institutions they created, was very clear.  Under an interim constitution there would be a transition to majority rule after five years of power-sharing government.  There would no white veto on this transition.  Indeed, the transition to majority rule took place after only two years, when the National Party withdrew from the power-sharing government complaining that it had no influence.  After the enactment of a new constitution in 1996, and a second democratic election in 1999, majority rule in South Africa has been firmly established.  This stands in stark contrast to Ireland, where the Belfast Agreement, despite the claims of Sinn Fein, is clearly not a transitional stage to an Irish Republic. It contains no timetable for the ending of partition.  On the contrary, the institutions it created and the principles on which it is based actually strengthen rather than undermine partition.  They enshrine the sovereignty of Britain over the north of Ireland, and formalise the Unionist veto on constitutional change.

There are a number of reasons why Sinn Fein, despite claiming to be following a similar strategy, has failed to emulate the ANC's success in achieving its basic objectives.  The most obvious is that Sinn Fein does not have the same level of popular support.  In South Africa, the ANC is the dominant political force.  At the last election it won sixty-six per cent of the vote, and was able to form a majority government.  Sinn Fein only has about five per cent in the whole of Ireland.  The most it can hope for, and what is increasingly becoming its goal, is to be a junior partner in a coalition government in both the Dail and Stormont.

Another reason for the failure of the republicans compared to the ANC is the role that militarism played in each struggle.  In the republican movement it was paramount, and all other activities were subordinated to it.  The inevitable consequence was the development of a movement that was both authoritarian and ideologically lightweight.  Once the armed struggle had been exhausted, the main ideological commitments of Republicanism quickly fell away.  This is why the issue of decommissioning has taken on such disproportional importance, while the shedding of political and social commitments has been barely noticed.  Because of the lack of ideological references, the surrender of weapons is the only sure measure by which republican activists can judge their progress.  Although the ANC used armed struggle, it was secondary to mass activity.  Indeed, it was the ANC's ability to organise mass action that proved decisive in securing majority rule.  Decommissioning was not an issue in South Africa.  Also, because it was not based primarily upon armed struggle, the ANC's strategy retained a strong ideological basis.  This enabled it to connect its decisions and actions to the objective of majority rule.

Another difference between South Africa and Ireland is the role of imperialism.  While imperialism clearly had an interest in what happened in South Africa, there was no direct involvement by foreign powers in the negotiations.  They were primarily between the ANC and the representatives of the white minority regime, and took place within the context of a state that had already achieved national independence.  This is in contrast to Irish peace process where Britain was the most powerful force within negotiations, and the ultimate arbitrator of their outcome.  So the negotiations were not really based on dialogue between nationalises and unionists, but on appeals from local parties to the British government to follow the policies required to win their 'confidence'.  This has become even more pronounced in the wake of the Belfast Agreement.  The most obvious example being the appeals by unionists and nationalists over the Patten Report on policing.  What it revealed is that the implementation of the Agreement is ultimately dependent on the will of the British government.  As a consequence, the strategy of Sinn Fein has been reduced to calling on the British Secretary of State to exercise his 'authority' to save the Agreement.  In this new schema, Britain is now the driving force towards an Irish Republic.


There is no doubt that the experience South Africa has been a major influence on the Irish peace process.  Not because it is a similar process, but because it provides a 'successful' example of how a nationalist movement can achieve its objectives.  This is why Sinn Fein has sought to compare South Africa and Ireland, and seek the endorsement of the ANC for its actions.  It all adds to the impression that Sinn Fein is pursuing a strategy that will lead to achievement of an Irish Republic.  The ANC for its part has been keen to shore up this illusion.  Exporting the South African model of 'conflict resolution' to other countries enhances its reputation and influence.  Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has been encouraged by the West to play an active role in international problems, particularly on its own continent.  It is South Africa that took the lead in ending the isolation of Libya over the Lockerbie bombing, led the peace initiatives on the Congo, and has been putting pressure on Robert Mugabe to end land seizures in Zimbabwe.  The ANC is trusted by the West to promote solutions, like the one that brought about majority rule in South Africa, that broadly conform to its interests.  This is why Britain is supportive of the ANC's role in the Irish peace process.  Although the ANC is often portrayed as the guarantor of republican interests, particularly over the weapons issue, it also enjoys the confidence of the British.  Given that Britain is the biggest investor in South Africa, and one of its biggest trading partners, and given the many historic and political links between the two countries, the ANC is unlikely to do anything to undermine the British position.  It will not risk alienating a close ally over Ireland.  Also, ambitious politicians like Cyril Ramaphosa are not going to jeopardise their careers over IRA arms dumps.  Despite its radical image, ANC's influence on the peace process is essentially a conservative one.  It's failure to transform South African society, despite having achievement of majority rule and gained control over the apparatus of a national state, is clear evidence of this conservatism.  The South African model is not one for radical transformation; it is one for the achievement of minimal nationalistic objectives.  Yet the Irish peace process does not even deliver these.  If the ANC can do so little having achieved its historic tasks, what can Irish Republicans do having fallen so far short of theirs?



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