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.  

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