Tuesday, 24 January 2012


In the coming year the leaders of the ANC and all its factions are likely to flood their members and supporters with calls to restore the ‘revolutionary discipline’ of the past. Despite tributes to this concept within the ANC, these calls are more likely to resonate with the many thousands of young people newly awakened to activism during the current world wide upsurge in struggles for social change. But however much the new activists in places like Tunisia, Syria, Nigeria, Greece, the USA and Spain will feel called upon to commit to the revolutionary discipline deemed necessary to win the changes they want, they would do well to look critically at the experience of ‘revolutionary discipline’ within South Africa and the ANC, where this idea was used to impose without much resistance, a neo-liberal capitalist programme on a movement with a majority of socialist members.
In January the ANC celebrated its hundred year anniversary. Many commentators complained that President Zuma’s speech did not give direction on the crucial questions facing the country he is governing. The speech, however, did give a clear indication of the ideological framing within which the president and his colleagues intend to address these questions. After recounting what he saw as the heroic deeds and leaders of the ANC in the past, Zuma asked what enabled the ANC to survive 100 years. He answered, ‘The ANC has well-built organisational structures that make it change with the times, and adapt to new conditions. It adheres to serious discipline in general and political discipline in particular, and emphasises respect. It has strong internal democratic processes.’ Later on he identified the party’s priority actions, which included the following: ‘We will take urgent and practical steps to restore the core values, stamp out factionalism and promote political discipline.’
These statements should be taken together with others such as the discussion document ‘Leadership renewal, discipline and organizational culture’ released in July 2010 by the national general council of the ANC, where the party’s highest body between conferences described its internal problems as stemming from factions fighting for self-enrichment through control of state funds and in the process breaking both the laws of the country and the rules and traditions of the ANC. The problem is understood as the breakdown of the revolutionary discipline and morality of the past, and the solution, therefore, is its restoration. The methods proposed are new rules, reviews of old rules, stricter enforcement, heavier sanctions for transgressors, and intensified political education and ‘human resource development’ for ANC members.

The whole position is based on a misrepresentation of the relationship between the policies pursued by the ANC in government and the conduct of the members of the party. Without a doubt the ANC government’s commitment to neo-liberal policies and decisions such as privatization, outsourcing, the arms deal, and cost recovery, led directly to its leaders and members being caught up in struggles for tenders, consultancies, bribes, directorships and procurement bonuses. It is the government that created the market for the sale of political influence. And as always in a competitive market, the advantage tended to go to those with the most resources and least scruples. To pretend that the ‘factionalism’ that resulted from this can be stopped by more discipline, political education and invoking the spirits of Oliver Tambo and Chris Hani, without doing away with the party’s commitment to a neo-liberal policy direction and the capitalist system that it serves, is to set up another round of crushed hopes and sold out expectations for the people.


Of course it is possible to say that the ANC never really had revolutionary discipline; that they were from the start an organisation of the black middle class, led by missionary educated liberal intellectuals whose protest was not against capitalism as such, but against their exclusion on the basis of racism from the higher levels of the system. IB Tabata’s classic book ‘The Awakening of a People’ is but one of a large number of studies that support such a view. However, a modification or an addition is needed. It is indeed true that the founders of the ANC wanted above all their right to fully participate in capitalist society, and that subsequent leaders allied themselves with self-styled Communists on the condition that the alliance prioritise the fight for this very right, even while agreeing with these Communists to call this fight the ‘national democratic revolution’. But it is also true that the ANC increasingly adapted to socialist rhetoric and ideology, so that certainly by the 1980s the internal discussions took place in socialist terms, the structure of the organisation was thought of as democratic centralism in the manner of Marxist parties, and the majority of members saw themselves as socialists.     

Against this background the turn to neo-liberalism as summarised in the Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) policy is easy to explain. By the time the ANC leadership achieved their founding goal of admission to the upper ranks of capitalist society, this society was dominated by neo-liberalism. The ruling classes and the leading institutions of world capitalism made it very clear that the price of admission for the ANC was a clear commitment to neo-liberalism, which the leadership duly made, coolly announcing to members and supporters that it was non-negotiable. What needs explanation is the relative ease with which the leaders did this. How did they impose, without discussion, and with relatively little resistance, a neo-liberal policy direction on an organisation whose members thought of themselves as socialists or at least social democrats?

The ANC’s tradition of ‘revolutionary discipline’ played a crucial role. Throughout its long life the ANC inculcated in its members a concept of revolutionary discipline that included absolute loyalty to the movement, submission to the decisions of the leadership, elevation of main leaders to cultish figures and suppression of public dissent by members. These attitudes are all very useful to a leadership needing to impose an unpopular decision. From 1996 onward ANC members had to choose between submitting to neo-liberalism and challenging the leadership in public. Very few could break with their conditioning as cadres and do the latter, they submitted with a few grumbles perhaps, but even these were quickly silenced in the universal scramble for positions of power and money that neo-liberalism unleashed. 


The call, no, the cry for discipline from ANC leaders that will reach deafening levels in the run up to their elective conference, has no chance of putting a stop to the neo-liberal ‘factionalism’ in the party’s ranks. This does not mean it will have no effects. Neo-liberalism on top of Apartheid has steadily increased poverty, inequality, frustration and the potential for polarisation. To defend the indefensible, government has had to move in an authoritarian direction, first defensively and lately quite aggressively. The discipline mantra will play into this trend. Once again old comrade Revolutionary Discipline will be deployed to defend the privileged and attack the poor and powerless. 

For those with an opposing agenda, who want a society without the divisive injustices of neo-liberal capitalism and state authoritarianism, this presents a crucial challenge. What is their position on discipline and revolutionary discipline in particular? This is especially pertinent given that this conception of revolutionary discipline is by no mean peculiar to the ANC. Not only has it been dominant in the big social change movements of the past like the nationalist struggles against colonialism and the trade unions and political parties of the workers’ movements, it is even the rule rather than the exception within the smaller groups and movements that have challenged the dominance of neo-liberalism over the last two or three decades, certainly in South Africa and Africa.

Supporters of this ‘democratic centralist’ understanding of revolutionary discipline say it is only by exacting obedience from its individual members and submission of its local groups to its central structures that a movement will be able to muster the necessary strength to win deep social changes against a powerful and highly disciplined ruling class. And that internal democracy is maintained because the expectation to loyally carry out decisions once they are made is counter-balanced by the election of leaders and full freedom in debate. Critics say that the most a movement based on this kind of discipline can achieve is replacing one ruling class with another because it divides its participants right from the start into rulers and ruled. Liberal democracy proves that periodic elections and freedom of expression does not add up to democracy if it is understood as the rule of the majority.


Opponents of the ANC’s neo-liberalism and authoritarianism would hardly deny the need for discipline in the struggle for social change. It is the type of discipline that is at issue. The anarchist-libertarian wing of the socialist movement understood that revolutionary discipline does not require submission to the authority of parties and leaders, however wise and revolutionary they might believe themselves to be, or might actually be. In fact, as noted, such a submission places a limit on the revolution. It entrenches relationships based on domination and submission among the participants of the revolutionary movement, which inevitably carry over into the post-revolutionary society creating ruling and ruled classes. The experience of the ANC is one of numerous cases that prove the truth of this view. The discipline of autonomous activists is therefore the most appropriate framework for the conduct of struggles against neo-liberal capitalism and state authoritarianism, if such struggles do not simply want to substitute one dominant group for another, but want to end institutionalised domination as such.

Practicing such an understanding of discipline is perhaps the most difficult thing a movement for social change can take on. It is not that the practical task of co-ordination is more difficult when the movement recognises the right of individual activists and local groups to pursue their own course, it is that the approach goes against the grain of everyday experience in state-capitalist society, where advancement depend on competing for power or working for people who have it. But it is precisely this latter feature of present day society that causes capitalism’s many social problems and that should motivate seekers of social change to organise on the principle of voluntary co-operation between autonomous individuals and groups. In fact practically every revolution in history had its most successful period when masses of people organised themselves in accordance with this principle. Certainly if human society is to have any chance of being genuinely free, of being an association where no one forces anyone to do anything, discipline has to come from the inside, from an ingrained or perhaps an unchained inherent intolerance of injustice and oppression within its members, to which they are loyal above any organisation, leader or ideology.

Friday, 6 January 2012


[This article was written in December 2007, shortly after the last national conference of the ANC in Polokwane]

Time to ask the question – what is the ANC?

When Jacob Zuma, the newly and (it seems) duly elected president of the ANC, stepped up to the stage in front of the conference delegates in Polokwane, millions watched with a sense of witnessing the making of their own history. It is difficult to imagine that the organisation he takes charge of will remain unchanged by the bitter conflict that characterised the leadership struggle of the preceding years. Few in Africa will be unaffected. Many in the rest of the world will also feel the consequences. The power and influence of the ANC makes its character a matter of concern for the rich investor looking to make the maximum profit off his billions, as well as for the shackdweller resisting forced relocation. What do they and the rest of us have in the ANC? A friend, an enemy, or something that vacillates between the two roles?

Few issues can compete with the ANC leadership contest in terms of the volume of reports and comments it attracted. Yet what did the innumerable headlines, comments, discussions and books tell the rich capitalist and the woman fighting those who want to demolish her shack about the character of South Africa’s most powerful political party? A great many things of course - perhaps too many. We are all left with an overload of stories and impressions whose connections to our experiences and problems are not always that clear. The character of the ANC is more often than not treated as a given, or a side issue, or amenable to expression by phrases such as ‘former liberation movement’ ‘broad church’ ‘neo-liberal’ or ‘political party’. None of this is necessarily wrong; it is just inadequate. If we want to relate to the ANC (and we have to relate to it, it is too powerful to ignore) in a manner that best serve our fundamental aims, then we need an understanding of it that is sophisticated enough to account for all the many people, actions, structures and relationships that make it up, and that is simple enough so that a critical mass of people can use it as a guide to act in the best way possible in different and unforeseen situations.  These fundamental aims and the actions they require depend on our political and ethical orientation and its interaction with the nature of the social formation we live in. The difficulty and discomfort of these questions perhaps account for the reluctance to pose the question of the basic character of the ANC. It does not justify it though.       

There can be little doubt that unclear or mistaken notions of what the ANC is cause frustration among people who want a more equal, free and solidaristic society. When a powerful institution does something that undermines the struggle for gender justice and women’s liberation, for example, it is of course always bad for the opponents of patriarchy. But if this happens where such feminist opponents had expected the institution to be their friend, it adds to the blow because an unseen enemy is more dangerous, and because few emotions are as paralysing as the shock and anguish caused by being betrayed by a supposed friend. Supporters of greater democracy, non-racialism, women’s liberation, personal freedom, socialism and environmental justice are often shocked and anguished in this way by the ANC and its members. There are so many examples - of unionists angered and disconcerted by the ANC’s neo-liberalism, feminists by its support for Zuma’s sexism, democrats by its corruption and authoritarianism, pan-Africanists and internationalists by its promotion of South Africa’s imperial ambitions on our continent and anti-racists by its siding with Western corporations on the issue of Apartheid reparations. Are these perceived problematic actions and policies the result of particular conjunctures of leading personalities and the balance of power in society or do they flow from the basic character of the ANC? Or put differently, should people who want to stop and change these actions and policies fight to reform aspects of the ANC or do they need to strive to remove the ANC from power? Or put still differently, should they expect the ANC as a body to be their ally or enemy in these struggles?

The origin of such expectations speaks directly to the question of the character of the ANC.  In part they flow from its self-projection as a progressive organisation committed to the cause of freedom, equality and solidarity. But perhaps the most powerful reason for these expectations is the fact of the living memory of the ANC as the self-created local expression of the struggles of the masses. By the 1980s the self-organisation of the fighting sections of the oppressed through unions, civics, youth groups, etc. became identified with the ANC. People in struggle therefore viewed the ANC as the expression of their own political consciousness and will, instead of a separate institution with a separate and possibly hostile agenda. The physical distance of the exiled and imprisoned ANC leadership allowed grassroots activists to imagine their social proximity and even identity. The pain we are talking about is partly the pain of the ANC’s open and hostile disentanglement from these organs of local self -expression and organisation of the working class and the poor and its open and warm embrace of the institutions and lifestyles of the rich and powerful. Mbeki the urbane, aloof, pipe-smoking ‘Englishman’ has become the symbol of this ANC of BEE, private schools, expensive whiskey and cigars, while Zuma tries to boost his chances for winning the presidency by singing and dancing and hugging like an ANC community leader of old – all while making sure to fly to Texas just before the conference to reassure CIA aligned investor advisors of his capitalist credentials.

Like everything else the ANC’s character is revealed and determined by its relationships. The work we have to do is therefore firstly to trace its relations to the relevant discrete abstractions from society namely racism, capital, the state, patriarchy and imperialism. Secondly we have to give expression to the fact that in the final analysis these discrete abstractions are illusory. Everything is connected, related and aspects of the same whole. Although we have to account for the sometimes separate appearance of racism, capital, the state, patriarchy and imperialism, they are not separate social formations but just different vantage points from which to view the same one. The infinite complexity and dynamism of these formations and their internal relations make the task of understanding them of necessity open ended and unfinished. With regard to the ANC this work has barely been started. Lots of information exists but the task of systemising it into a coherent view of the character of the ANC as constituted in its internal relations to today’s major social constructs must still be posed.

Arguably the ANC’s most important relationship is to its own members. At the very least, because it is based on alienation, it facilitates the party’s relationship to capital and the state. Alienation in this context refers to the simultaneous and mutually caused dehumanisation of the person and apparent humanisation of the institution. This happens when humans give up, or seem, or try, or are required to give up their specific natural qualities as beings that think, make ethical judgements, search for meaning and socially create, in favour of a social construct that claim these qualities for itself. For the model ANC member, especially one running for office, the ‘movement’ is everything, the individual nothing. Even the word ‘movement’ is said with a kind of awe, like the name of God. And like with other gods the most the individual can hope for is to be a good instrument of the designs and traditions of the ‘movement’. This is the one thing Mbeki, Zuma and all the senior leaders never tire of repeating, even when some of them obviously do not believe it. It is part of the basic character of the ANC.

It should be obvious that this undermines the personal freedom of ANC members. Ceding personal expression and judgment to an institution in this manner always involve submitting to the authority of those who come to embody the institution’s power. In practice the authority of the supra-personal movement becomes the possession of definite individuals and groups that get to impose their will on the rest of the members. This characteristic reached extreme, grotesque proportions in Stalinist Communist parties that took a form akin to mass cults with a special language, a dogma, rituals and infallible leaders all centred around the absolute authority of The Party. It is no coincidence that the alienation that characterises the ANC’s relationship to its members developed at the same time as it grew closer to the South African Communist Party – ironically during the same period that the grassroots activists who were the leaders of the self-activity of the masses increasingly identified such activity with the ANC.

The power that alienation gives the ANC over its members played, and plays, a central role in mediating the party’s relations to the fundamental constructs of society. It is what allowed the leadership to impose the neo-liberal GEAR on a membership whose vast majority were socialists and social democrats. This did not only involve distancing the ANC from the grassroots organisations with which it became identified, it also implicated it in maintaining racism. Neo-liberalism makes everything dependent on money power, which in South Africa is white power. Neo-liberal South Africa is therefore profoundly racist in that it continues to reproduce white priviledge and black oppression. For a movement formed specifically to oppose racism to be led like that into maintaining such a society with relatively little resistance from its members is another significant testimony to the power of alienation. The relationship of the ANC to the state can similarly be argued to be facilitated and characterised by alienation. Lastly such alienation, with its hostility to personal freedom, robs the ANC of the capacity to effectively challenge the patriarchy that made up the foundation upon which the state, capital, racism and the ANC was formed.

In summary, a relational investigation of the ANC starting with the observation that it’s most basic relationship, its relationship to its own members, is characterised by alienation, offers us the best chance of arriving at an understanding of the ANC that shows the required sophistication and simplicity. It offers perhaps the only reliable framework for clarifying the specific impact of the recent power struggle and the new president. This work has hardly started. The empirical information of how the ANC relates to township and shack dwellers, to rich capitalists, to the inherited culture and personnel of the South African state, and to women and workers in struggle are sketchy and skewed at best. Its analysis with the aid of the concept of alienation is entirely absent. At this stage, therefore, definitive pronouncements are out of the question. Dogmatic injunctions will be a disaster. Instead the reader is offered hypotheses intended to provoke discussion and invite dialogue.

We may wonder though about the absence of this approach from the many pages and broadcasts devoted to the ANC. After all, the concept of alienation is hardly unknown. And relational thinking is perhaps as old as thinking itself. The dynamic here might be similar to the one we see in the discussion of democracy. President Mbeki stands accused of undermining the internal democracy of the ANC. But if there is a rule in this discussion then it is this: the louder the critic the less likely he or she is to spell out what ANC members are supposed to decide and how. It is much more noise than vision. The reason for this is fairly simple. The most vociferous critics of the president like Helen Zille, Blade Nzimande and Mondli Makhanya (to name only three) generally wield much more institutionalised power in their own institutions than President Mbeki does in the ANC. A serious promotion of a vision of greater internal democracy immediately threatens their own power. Perhaps what accounts for the dearth of analyses of alienated relationships in the ANC is the fact that all of us are in some way involved in similar institutionalised relationships. A critique of the alienation that constitutes the character of the ANC therefore always require self-critique. This is not easy to do. But it probably will be unavoidable if we want to understand adequately this ANC that has influenced, inspired, horrified, governed and positively enthralled us for nine and a half decades, and will continue to do so long after Polokwane.