The National Question

22 May 2008


  1. Few matters have been as intensely and extensively debated within the movement and South Africa as a whole as this matter known as the “national question”. This question arose as we sought to understand the nature of our oppression as well as the freedom struggle. What this debate sought to address was not only what we were fighting against, but equally importantly, what we were fighting for, who we were fighting against, who supported the freedom struggle. This debate sought to answer the question, what was the nature of the contradiction in our country and how could it be resolved, and by whom!
  2. The formation of the ANC in 1912, bringing together various, disparate ethnic groups, could be seen as an initial concerted attempt to respond to the national question and forge national unity. In bringing together various African indigenous groups on the basis of complete equality, the ANC laid the basis for the national unity of all South Africans despite and regardless of their diversity. The ANC was an answer to national division, discrimination and bigotry. The ANC’s mission was therefore to unite, first and foremost the Africans as the largest and most oppressed group so that they could fight for freedom and national self-determination and, in the process, unite all the oppressed along a common platform for freedom and ultimately all South Africans.
  3. As far back as the 1920s, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) was already engaged in debates on the national question in South Africa, and the Communist International even adopted resolutions to this effect, describing South Africa as a “British Dominion of the colonial type” in which British capital occupied “the principal economic positions in the country (banks, mining and industry)…” The ANCYL itself, upon its formation in 1944, engaged in intensive and extensive debates on this matter, albeit from a nationalist angle.
  4. There is no gainsaying that this debate is still relevant, given the present phase of the struggle, and our historic understanding that the national question could never be fully addressed given that at each historical context, it arises in different forms and character and poses new challenges all the time. As we succeed to resolve one challenge, new and sometimes more complex challenges arise.
  5. Understanding the national question also helps cadres to understand the specific conditions of our society and the social relations that exist in it. Generally, the national question pertains to the search for national sovereignty or self-rule by an oppressed group. This must involve a dominant, oppressor power on the one hand, and a dominated or oppressed group, on the other. Neither of these two groups must be homogeneous, but the right to national sovereignty or self-rule is exclusively accorded to the oppressed/dominated group. The national question describes the nature of the relations between these groups – the nature of oppression, the struggle between them and the end-goal of that struggle.

The origins of the National Question in South Africa

  1. At a certain level of their development, regarded as the imperialist stage, and through military expeditions, advanced capitalist countries expanded their political and economic interests to foreign countries, especially in the Americas, Asia and Africa, and conquered these nations. They thus established political control over these countries, deprived indigenous communities of political rights, expropriated them of their lands and established in these countries capitalist exploitation. Thus, in brief, commenced the era of colonialism and set in motion the national question.
  2. In South Africa, colonial conquest did not involve merely a homogeneous group of colonisers versus a homogeneous group of the colonised. What it did was to bring together into one nation-state a heterogeneous group of the colonisers and another heterogeneous group of the colonised, while it, at the same time, sought to preclude the unity of these groups into one nation. The colonising group was made of primarily the Dutch and British settlers while the colonised group consisted of various African indigenous populations, and were later joined by the Indian, Malay and other peoples who were victims of indentured labour and forced migration, as well as the Coloured community that were indigenous in South Africa.
  3. Accordingly, while they were heterogeneous, the colonising group which enjoyed exclusive political and economic rights, developed a shared identity on the basis of their skin colour/pigmentation or race and, on the other, the colonised also developed a shared identity on the same basis.
  4. The discovery of gold and diamond in South Africa in the late 19th Century ushered in the capitalist relations of production and a modern political system. This led to the intensification of the capitalist methods of exploitation, led by legislative and other coercive methods which included land expropriation, military conquest and proletarianisation of the indigenous populations. This also ushered in new forms of struggle characterised by the existence of trade unions and political formations organised along new methods consistent with this development. This was later to lead to such draconian laws as the native land act, the group areas act, labour reservations act, and others.
  5. However, the discovery of this natural wealth, including the existence of vast tracks of productive lands, prompted the settler communities to decide to settle in South Africa permanently and make this their home. This meant that a unique situation thus developed when both the colonising and colonised groups regarded South Africa as their home, while they retained between them colonial relations of coloniser and colonised. This was thus described as by the movement as a whole as the “Colonialism of a Special Type” theory.
  6. After the “Anglo-Boer War”, South Africa became a “British Dominion of the colonial type” in which the ruling class was exclusively white and the working class was almost exclusively black. Because the ruling class offered the white working class certain political and socio-economic privileges to buy their loyalty and support, and share with them the spoils of oppression, the white working class developed to identify their interests on racial basis as against those of their black counterparts, and thus became part of the entire white ruling bloc.

Defining the National Question in South Africa

  1. The majority of the population of South Africa is black and black people were all oppressed and exploited as blacks. This was regardless of their social status, gender or ethnic group. Of course, while their oppression was common, they suffered it to varying degrees, with the Africans being the most oppressed and black women suffering triple oppression, that is, political oppression, economic exploitation and gender discrimination. For this reason, the main content of the struggle was the liberation of the black people in general and Africans in particular. The liberation of the African constituted the precondition for the liberation of all oppressed groups in South Africa. While this was not meant to divide the oppressed and disparage the legitimate aspirations of the other oppressed groups, it acknowledged that the Africans were the largest and most oppressed group and because of their position in relation to other groups, were the leader of the struggle. This perspective constituted the “national” element of the national democratic revolution which acknowledged that the present stage of struggle in our country is a revolution of the whole oppressed people which expressed the broad objective interests of all black classes within the nationally-dominated majority, including the working class, the black petit- bourgeoisie and significant strata of the emergent black bourgeoisie. The national character of the struggle has thus been dominant and continues even to this day to dominate our approach.
  2. However, today, the national struggle is executed under different objective conditions, in the context where Africa, including South Africa, is free from colonial bondage. However, it is still an imperialist world in which the globalisation process has created sharp contradictions between the rich and poor, both within and between Nation-States. Yet, and while new social dynamics may have emerged to begin to express themselves in the unfolding social transformation in our country, the national approach to the execution of the struggle remains relevant. The political victory over apartheid achieved in 1994 could and did not mean the ultimate defeat of the national oppression suffered by the black majority and Africans in particular, which is why the ANC has retained the perspective that the main content of the struggle even in present-day South Africa is the national liberation of the black majority and Africans in particular. This constitutes the principal mandate of the democratic State we are busy in the process of constructing and the agenda for social transformation we are pursuing.
  3. National oppression in South Africa was intimately linked to class exploitation for the majority of the people. It derived from the deprivation of the majority of the wealth of the land and hence victory for us meant more than formal political democracy, and embraced economic emancipation. It was for this reason that the South African, especially the black working class, had a special and pre-eminent role in the struggle. It was out of this understanding that the Freedom Charter, whilst not being a socialist programme, entailed a comprehensive political and socio-economic agenda. To have meaning, national liberation would have to address itself to this historical injustice. Accordingly, the radical perspective of the national liberation movement did not simplify the national and class components of the struggle, posing them as contradictory to one another, but insisted on the a correct understanding at all times of the class content of the national struggle and the national content of the class struggle in South Africa. In any way, both the oppressed \’people\’ and the ruling camp were made up of different classes and strata. Failure to understand this approach at the present phase would weaken the NDR and turn it into a blunt liberal instrument. It is this interplay between the national and class struggles that formed the basis for the strategic alliance between the ANC, representing the radical nationalist strand, the SACP, representing the political instrument of the working class, and COSATU, representing progressive organised labour.
  4. The national and class oppression suffered by black people in general resulted in black women carrying a heavy burden of oppression and humiliation. All the laws promulgated under apartheid and hitherto meant to ensure the political subjugation and economic exploitation of black people as a whole were either directly suffered by black women, to the same degree, or placed a heavy burden on them. Besides being directly involved in the struggle, many women suffered exploitation as workers involved in production, often receiving lesser wages than men whilst sometimes involved in the same jobs, and many had to sustain their families while the men were in the mines, towns and farms working. It became women who carried their families during the times of poverty, and many paid a heavy price for their participation in the freedom struggle as equals to men. It was for this reason that the national and class elements of the struggle could not be separated from the gender element, and hence our vision was to create a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous society.
  5. Now, what of the racial minorities! This area has continued to pose a serious challenge for the national question give that, with the exception of the white community, the Indian and Coloured people are part at the same time of the black majority and national minorities. What compounds situation is that while these communities were also oppressed, they nonetheless enjoyed some privileges compared to the Africans. The result of this is that their own national consciousness of their position and role is made all the more intricate.
  6. However, while the ANC enjoys the support of the majority of the Indian and Coloured middle-classes, the working class tends to be more conservative, even though this may not hold true in some respects. The apartheid system had bought their support and cushioned them. Democracy, on the other hand, has removed these racially-determined privileges and expanded them into broad-based, non-racial socio-economic rights. This has created an artificial competition between these groups and the African working class as well as the tensions that the Democratic Alliance is exploiting and from which it derives its support. Housing is a common challenge for all the black poor in Cape Town, for example, yet the remnants of racism preclude the identification of this common goal and challenge and is being exploited further to divide the African and Coloured working classes such as is the case with the Delft housing project. Accordingly, non-racial working class unity behind a common national agenda, along common class interests remains elusive and a challenge still to be pursued.
  7. How do we approach the white minority? Historically, we have always held the belief that the majority of white people in South Africa shared the spoils of white domination in this country and thus had a vested interest in the exploitative caste society of South Africa. This notwithstanding, there were still white people who forsook these privileges and joined forces actively with their black counterparts to fight the system of racial supremacy. Today, the question is, how do we approach the white minority in South Africa to persuade them to relinquish their fear for democracy and majority rule, to learn to have confidence in the non-racial future for South Africa? In view of regular racial events in some parts of the country, highlighted by recent events in Skielik, the University of Free State and others, the question is, do whites in South Africa regard racial acts as a problem? When black people, for example in these areas, march against racism, there are no whites and even when they are there, there are few.
  8. Owing to the fact that the national question in South Africa proceeded from both uniting different ethnic and racial groups into one nation-State, as well as splitting these groups racially into the groups of oppressors and oppressed, and going further to split the oppressed into varying national and ethnic groups that were put into competition with one another and granted sham independence or self-rule, ours became a dynamic society that is a microcosm of the world itself. To the extent that we may succeed in uniting all these groups into a shared sense of nationhood, all equal before the law and none feeling marginalised, to that extent will the new South African society contribute something unique in the world. The unique situation in which we find ourselves has taught the masses of our people, led by the liberatory forces, to appreciate their unity in diversity. This is a conscious effort that evolved in struggle, especially when the ANC was formed in 1912, bringing together various disparate ethnic groups under one umbrella that itself became the microcosm of the society we were fighting for.
  9. In South Africa, given that we had long acknowledged that we are not a heterogeneous society, it became also acknowledged that each one of us could and did have multiple identities – being South African, of a particular racial and ethnic group, with a specific mother tongue, class position, political and religious affiliation and so on. Accordingly, the notion of unity in diversity did not address itself to the broad concept of the national and ethnic groups that constitute our society, but also to the fact that our people possess more than a single identity to which they owe allegiance. However, all these factors are harnessed to forge a united nation rather than to split and divide us into little, fractious, ever-competing and antagonistic factions.
  10. Precisely because national oppression entailed oppressing all black people, it created a glass ceiling over them beyond which none, whatever their talents, capabilities or even aspirations could transcend. Accordingly, whereas over time some black middle-class had developed, there was no black bourgeoisie. This group was treated as an aspirant group so as not to deny its existence. It was thus the understanding of the national liberation movement that freedom would equally mean breaking down the walls that had precluded this group’s existence and free pursuit of its aspirations, among their white counterparts. Naturally, this meant that this group would, whilst in the immediate sharing common interests with all black people, in the medium-to-long-term, develop independent class interests that would certainly differ and be in conflict with those of the black working classes and the poor in general. They would develop common cause with their white counterparts. Developing a black bourgeoisie has incited heated debates within the progressive movement in our country, yet this is a natural and logical progression of the NDR given the fact this is a national struggle and that a national democratic society as the movement has always envisaged it would be multi-class in character. The challenge at all times for the movement is always the weight accorded each of the social motive forces of the NDR by the state. Yet another more important challenge is continuously to engage with this challenge so that we are able both to engage with this emerging group as well as to understand it when their material interests collide with those of the working class. We must not be romantic about the role of this class in our society; they will look, think, smell and behave like another bourgeois class. We cannot expect them to perform tasks that their well-established white counterparts are not performing. In the immediate term, may be, but in the long term new permutations will begin to express themselves objectively.
  11. The national question does not exist only in these cold, objective, material components. It is also about feelings, perceptions, attitudes, consciousness and other subjective elements, many of which are learned. The colonial system used the superstructure to foster a sense of racial superiority among the whites and inferiority amongst the black majority, and to try to split the oppressed into little ethnic groups in the desire to divide and rule. The apartheid regime endeavoured hard to define South Africa as a country of white people only while the black majority were ethnic groups each with their own homeland. It was for this reason that upon the political defeat of apartheid, it was so vital to promote reconciliation, a New Patriotism as a way of developing pride among all South Africans in being South African. It is for this reason that we should all be concerned about the recent events in Skierlik and the University of Free State, and engage very rigorously and vigorously with the proposed National Schools Pledge for learners. What happened in Skielik and the University of Free State were not isolated incidents; they actually happen in many small towns, farms, and historically-Afrikaner Universities, including Potch, Tukkies and Stellenbosch. We must really not be surprised; these things have been happening under our very noses and we did not see them until now. The reality is that they happen in schools and other institutions. The reality is also that even the churches and sports codes are still racially divided. We will not make much progress at the objective level if we also do not make a concerted effort at the subjective level.
  12. To the extent that the national question consists generally in defining relations between various groups within a nation-State, to that extent must we also bear it in mind even international migration especially in South Africa continues to pose a further challenge to our understanding of this concept and how we define ourselves as a nation. South Africa is regarded as one of the countries with the largest inflows of immigrants. Historically, we defined ourselves as a country of broad white groups, Indians, Coloureds, Africans, comprising of amaZulu, baSotho, baPedi, amaXhosa and others; today, there are many South Africans of Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Hellenic, Portuguese, Congolese, Nigerian and other origins. With regards to the African immigrants, they both form part of a majority African group in our country and are, at the same time, a minority group owing to their particular circumstances. In many African communities, there are many French and Portuguese speaking households, both residing in South Africa legally and undocumented (‘illegally’). Given that international migration is a growing phenomenon globally, the progressive movement needs to engage with this challenge in order to continue to expand its perspectives and yet combat xenophobia which seems prevalent in many of our communities.


  1. In short, what the above tries to emphasise is that the national democratic revolution is far from being accomplished. While enormous progress has been made during the past 14 years of our democracy, enormous challenges remain along the way which will require us to continue to engage this question of the character of our struggle and sharpen our ideological instruments.

Issues that arose in the discussion for further debate

  1. Is the creation of the black bourgeoisie a strategic objective of the NDR or is it that of white capital? Is there something like a black bourgeoisie or are we talking just about the bourgeoisie? What is their role?
  2. How does the widening gap between the rich and poor, regardless of race, relate to the national question? How is this to be addressed within this challenge of resolving principally the national contradictions? This means we must deepen our understanding of the interplay between the national and class forces as the NDR makes progress and throws open new challenges.
  3. How do we define the concept of “African” broadly? Are Afrikaners, Coloureds and Indians not themselves Africans? What is the role of these groups in our society? How do we achieve integration?
  4. How do we liberate the minds of those that were colonised? This relates also to the issues regarding international migration – why do we discriminate against African immigrants and are resentful towards them, while we are welcoming towards and do not discriminate against non-African immigrants?
  5. If we say that the ANC is the liberator and unifier of the people, how do we strive for national unity? How does it, for example, deal with such contentious issues as the renaming of the streets, the language question, affirmative action and others? On the language question, for example, besides the challenge to strengthen indigenous languages, is it not important to ensure that the national minorities in South Africa also understand and can master at least a single indigenous language?
  6. Transformation is about the seizure of state power; but what is power, where is it located in society and how does it relate to the economy and get used to transform race relations? In this regard, how do we address the landlessness of the Africans?
  7. Should we reject the concept of the rainbow nation?

ANC National Executive Committee Member