Fairly often it is suggested that the ANC may not be able to hold its December conference, now frequently called an “elective conference”. Alternatively, it is said that it may emerge very weakened by divisions, may split into two parts, or may, in fact, collapse as an organisation and disappear. There are, undoubtedly, other gloomy possibilities. The Mail and Guardian claims that sources say that President Jacob Zuma is very worried about his “legacy” and is consequently pleading for unity between competing candidates for the ANC presidency and working, as are some others for accommodating winners and losers in whatever electoral outcome that emerges.
What is at stake in talk of the ANC’s existence being under threat? In truth, the ANC has survived many threats to its existence and took decades to become the dominant force of the 1950s, facing challenges from various Africanist and more mass-based trends in its earlier years.
The answer to the question of what ANC survival means in 2017, will be very different from what it was in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and immediately after its unbanning. In these earlier periods, the ANC was defined by clear political ideas and people joined the organisation, often at great risk to themselves, in order to advance aims with which they identified.
The ANC was understood for most of its existence to represent an emancipatory vision, couched in different ways at various times, but from the 1950s (and that period built on earlier efforts at self-definition) it embraced an idea of the South Africa that the ANC wanted to see instead of prevailing apartheid conditions. This vision was not developed by the ANC alone. It was most famously concretised in the Freedom Charter, adopted at the Congress of the People, in 1955, following a lengthy campaign of consultation and collection of “demands” from people located in diverse geographical locations and from different population groups and strata of society.
The result of the extensive consultation was that the charter became a document that “spoke to” people, that embodied their own suffering in general declaratory terms but also in demands that referred to eccentric forms of oppression found only in apartheid South Africa and sometimes only amongst some sections of the population.
The ANC split in the late 1950s with Africanists breaking away to form the Pan Africanist Congress, disagreeing with some clauses of the Freedom Charter. It had nothing to do with who held this or that position in the organisation. It had nothing to do with money, as can be seen in the historical record. It was related primarily to the difference in vision of the Africanists and the supporters of the charter.
In the years that followed the ANC debated these and other issues repeatedly, because the Africanist vision and other contested issues have never disappeared from African nationalism and the freedom struggle. Historically, Africanism had at certain points been stronger than the organisation and membership of the ANC in earlier periods, as with the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU), described by Helen Bradford as a liberation movement and the Garveyites and related movements. (See for example, Helen Bradford, A Taste of Freedom: The ICU in Rural South Africa, 1924-1930, Ravan Press, Johannesburg, 1987, Robert T Vinson, The Americans are Coming! Dreams of African American Liberation in Segregationist South Africa, Ohio University Press, 2012 and Raymond Suttner “African Nationalism” in Peter Vale, Lawrence Hamilton and Estelle H Prinsloo, (eds) Intellectual Traditions in South Africa. Ideas, Individuals and institutions, UKZN Press, 2014, pp 124-145).
More importantly, after the banning of the ANC and PAC in 1960 (and the SACP 10 years earlier), there had to be repeated reviews of strategies and tactics, how to realise the goals set out in the Freedom Charter and other policy expressions. The ANC and its allies now pursued goals under very difficult conditions. Over time these policy statements were also concretised and reviewed, before 1990, where the ANC and its allies drew lessons from other experiences and this led to avoiding fetishising nationalisation or public ownership. This can be seen in the Constitutional Guidelines, published by the ANC in 1988, http://www.anc.org.za/content/constitutional-guidelines-democratic-south-africa).
These debates raged, inside and outside the country, in Lusaka, in the camps in Angola and in London and other countries, in various continents. Inside the country, these and other ideas were debated in Robben Island and other prisons, in underground structures and mass organisations, when the space emerged for these issues to be discussed. In every case there was contestation. The contestation was over ideas, how different classes should relate to one another in the struggle against apartheid and after the victory that slogans declared to be “certain”. Debate raged over how the struggle for socialism related to nationalism, in a period when Marxism enjoyed considerable support not only in the SACP but also within the SACP, in a time when “the Party” as it was then known, enjoyed considerable prestige. Other debates included how land and agricultural questions should be addressed, how best to relate to cultures of different peoples, what rights minorities could claim, what status should be enjoyed by traditional leaders etc etc.
Given that many people lived under bantustan rule, some asked how the ANC and its allies should relate to these government structures, given that they existed and were a fact of life.
There was sometimes “purism” – that there should be no engagement whatsoever with collaborationist structures and sometimes greater pragmatism, notably in the case of Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela, given that the ANC or MK did not have the capacity to protect people in many of these areas.
As the struggle advanced, internationally, through armed and underground struggle and in the last decades, through mass activities by popular organisations inside the country, the apartheid regime found itself on the back foot. That is not to say that the slogan “victory is certain” could be counted on to be true. Victory, in the sense of defeating apartheid still had to be worked for long and hard and in different ways, over which people struggled, argued and debated. They also carefully reviewed and drew lessons from campaigns that had been waged in various terrains of engagement with the regime.
Put briefly, the late 1980s saw a stalemate or what the famous Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci called a “reciprocal siege” where neither side could defeat the other. These were conditions where a negotiated solution became a possible way of achieving a democratic outcome.
In 2017, some commentators look back on this period with contempt, as one of unrelenting concessions made to the oppressor. The leadership of the ANC, SACP and COSATU did not have one view, but everyone believed that if freedom could be achieved by reducing bloodshed through negotiations that should be pursued. It should be remembered, that it was primarily the blood of the oppressed people that was being spilt.
In the period 1990-1994, there was much disagreement, manifested not only in discussions at a leadership level but in the ranks of MK, amongst those who had been in the mass movements of the 1980s, underground and in international campaigns.
I was one of those who was lukewarm about negotiations. I had followed the instruction to pursue insurrection in the 1980s and followed the default position that there was nothing to negotiate except the immediate transfer of power to the majority of the people, led by the ANC. In consequence, I had mixed feelings about the swift pace of events between calling for insurrection in 1989, (notably in the SACP conference held in Cuba in August), the unbanning of previously illegal organisations and the start of talks. At these talks, the ANC leadership made unilateral concessions such as the suspension of armed action. Many of us were shocked and we did not like gestures of that sort and could not see how that would strengthen our hands in any negotiations that could arise.
We also had illusions about the power of MK, believing that we were being robbed of military victory. It is hard to recapture the emotional power that MK held over many of us, how we celebrated their attacks on police stations and other actions. (In one of the ironies of being part of collective leadership I was tasked with defending that decision, to suspend armed action, in an article in City Press, reprinted in one of the last issues of Sechaba, the official ANC organ from the period of exile. I made the case, as required, in the light of that becoming an organisational decision.)
In the decades that followed, negotiations were pursued at the same time as the ANC and SACP tried to rebuild themselves as legal organisations – with the apartheid regime pursuing dirty tricks, refusing to provide a level playing field and also attacking communities. At various points, the negotiations were close to collapse. Mandela was not absolutely wedded to negotiations but through a combination of deployment of mass power and steely determination, the settlement was realised, paving the way for the first democratic elections and constitution. In this context, Mandela worked closely with then SACP leader, Joe Slovo. Chris Hani had also been a key figure until, his assassination in 1993, in that he was one of the few people sufficiently trusted to explain what was necessary to achieve peace and freedom to the ANC’s soldiers.
In the years prior to 1994, I headed the ANC Political Education section and we were constantly preoccupied with how the organisation would exist after elections. We feared the possibility of the ANC becoming a conventional political party, meaning a voting machine and worked tirelessly to try to make ANC branches thriving centres of debate. At the same time, there was an influx of advisers who urged the ANC to “modernise” or “normalise” its political structures and organisation and in fact become an electoral machine.
Regrettably, that is what has happened. The branches of the ANC exist primarily for elections, as is admitted by the ANC itself. (https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/news/2017-12-02-elections-only--membership-worries-anc/). Along with elections, there are now positions of power that enable personal enrichment and diversion of contracts and resources to associates, as has been repeatedly revealed in reports of corruption and state capture.
In this context, the ANC of ideas has more or less disappeared. Although candidates for the ANC presidency have recently developed one or other policy stance or aligned themselves with or against some phrases associated with President Zuma, these ideas do not emerge out of debate within the ANC or its allies. They simply meet the need for a candidate to set out a body of policies and in the main, they are hastily drawn up and generally endorse what exists or react against that.
It is reported, in the Sunday Times, that members are being recruited purely as “voting cows” because membership drops drastically in years when there are no leadership elections. Figures show that there is a jump in membership before an “elective conference” what used to be known purely as the national conference and then there is a substantial decline. It is acknowledged that money passes and that branches are “bought”. There is a great deal of litigation over disputed elections in some branches and provinces. There is a lot at stake for some people in who gets elected.
This is completely different from the issues that preoccupied the ANC prior to 1994. Some people have become billionaires or want to become billionaires or simply to acquire some resources to survive, and that is related to who leads the ANC at various levels.
While others may not seek to divert state resources, they have held senior positions while this has been done. Their desire to clean up the ANC relates to fears that the country is collapsing, as its economy collapses. There is, however, no serious and comprehensive vision on hand. That can only emerge from a democratic organisation that engages respectfully with all its supporters and members. The ANC is not that anymore. If it does not survive this conference, we will not have lost an organisation that is essential to freedom. History may well judge that the ANC has – like Zanu-PF – become an obstacle to realising the freedom of South Africa’s peoples.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison has been reissued in 2017, with a new introduction covering his more recent “life outside the ANC” by Jacana Media. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner
This article first appeared on Creamer Media's https://www.polity.org.za/