The evolution of the ANC
By Dale T. McKinley, Daily Mail & and Guardian,
1 March 2000
While the ANC may represent the masses, President Thabo Mbeki's state of the
nation address confirmed the party's leadership has always been rooted in the
petit bourgeoisie, writes DALE T McKINLEY.
Johannesburg - Is it a revolutionary change of course or merely a more overt expression
of the predictable (if somewhat uneven) evolution of African National
Congress's socio-economic strategy and policy? President Thabo Mbeki, in
his State of the Nation address, finally gave an unapologetic, institutional
and public affirmation of the ANC leadership's historic class agenda.
Mbeki explained to the country and the world that South Africa is now in a
"better position than ever before" to face the challenges of mass
unemployment and increasing social poverty. This is possible, because
South Africa is now "one of the most attractive emerging markets" (thanks
to the predictive acumen of Julian Ogilvie-Thompson, Moody's
international credit-rating agency and the statistics department of the
Ministry of Finance).
To translate this incredible opportunity into reality the government plans to
pursue the "strategic objective" of a partnership between the public and
private sectors, with a little help from an International Investment Council
that reads like a who's who of big-time global capitalists. In turn, this new
strategically run engine room of economic growth and social upliftment
will speed up the privatisation of public assets, deal with "selfish and
anti-social" workers, change "inflexible" labour laws and help the private
sector become the rudder of the economy. In the words of the overjoyed
South African Chamber of Business (Sacob), "we will be the first country
guided by foreign-investor imperatives".
All of this is consistent with the historic class politics of the ANC leadership
itself and the ANC's strategic approach to socio-economic change that has
evolved as a result. While it might make good media propaganda (and score
brownie points with the big capitalists) for ANC leaders to talk about "biting
the bullet", the reality is that the ANC has been continuously chewing the
euphemistic bullet for the better part of its history. This most recent
incarnation of the ANC leadership's gradual, but consistent, rightward shift
does not represent the ANC's own version of the "end of history", that is, the
"big bang" in its conversion from Marxist to "free" market ideology.
Rather, it represents the latest, and possibly most disingenuous, public
confirmation of the ANC leadership's historic, petit bourgeois class agenda.
It was way back in 1945 that former ANC president AB Xuma captured its
essence with an honesty that contemporary ANC leaders would, for obvious
reasons, find politically unpalatable: "It is of less importance to us whether
capitalism is smashed or not. It is of greater importance to us that while
capitalism exists, we must fight and struggle to get our full share and
benefit from the system."
In other words, the defining strategic logic of the national liberation
struggle waged by successive generations of ANC leaders, as forthrightly
encapsulated by Xuma, is best described as one of accession and aspiration.
The conception of class power that the majority of the ANC's leadership has
always held is defined by the capitalist class they have aspired to join.
Practically, this has meant that instead of affirming the radical
socio-economic possibilities of the struggles waged by their own mass
constituency, strategic access to existing institutionalised political and
economic power has been pursued regardless of the tactics utilised to gain
This strategic approach, in varying
guises, informed the politics of the
ANC leadership throughout the 20th
century. During the 1920s and 1930s
the class interests of the ANC
leadership (selected land ownership,
access to capital, a "free market"), led
to a practical politics that viewed
close identification with the
economic interests of the workers
and unemployed as a danger.
In the early 1960s a small group of
ANC leaders turned its back on the
radical possibilities of internal mass
struggle by unilaterally deciding to
set up an armed wing and embark on an exile-based armed struggle. In the
mid-to-late 1980s the ANC leadership was already beginning to cut
(post-apartheid) deals with domestic and international capital while
simultaneously urging on the workers and poor to fight for a revolutionary,
insurrectionary seizure of power.
During the pre-1994 negotiations, the ANC leadership virtually locked out
its own mass constituency from the tripartite alliance forums that set the
framework for subsequent political and social relations in a "new" South
Fast forward to the new millennium. Mbeki and Minister of Finance
Trevor Manuel's confident assertions that it is, once again, the poor that
will benefit most from the kind of policies they are implementing are little
different from the tactics of placation and co-option that have been
practiced with great success by Western capitalists for decades.
Whether at a national or global level, the associated politics is remarkably
consistent -- fighting for a bigger slice of the pie, a fuller share of the
system. It's just that the ANC leadership is only now becoming bolder,
having figured that their tactical successes over the past few years have
opened the space for a fuller implementation of the strategy itself.
Things are made even easier when the leadership of the organised working
class continues to blame other "class interests" for the capitalist-inspired
offensive against workers, seemingly unwilling to come to grips with the
reality of the class politics of the ANC leadership itself.
How difficult is it? Simply put, the strategy of seeking common ground with
capital (both domestic and global) for some kind of "social contract" to drive
the restructuring of an ailing South African capitalism has meant the
containment of mass struggle and the delegitimisation of more radical
policy alternatives emanating from the ANC's own constituency.
Big capital in the West rings the bell of investment and structural
adjustment and the ruling classes of the South salivate accordingly, The
neo-liberalspeak and endless statistics that accompanied Manuel's opus
magnum merely confirms that the right mix is being proferred. Once the
pattern is established, subsequent actions will follow in a celebration of
While the new, rationalising "free" market terminology might be more
confusing than the well-known liberation slogans of the past, it cannot hide
the fact that the practice remains where it has been most at home --
removed from the masses. The cumulative history of the ANC leadership's
political practice has gone a long way to emasculate the self-activity and
self-emancipation of the mass of people who have given that very
leadership its raison d'être.
It should really come as no surprise if it now appears as though the
day-to-day struggles of the majority of South Africans are being viewed as
ad hoc requirements to a more important, instrumentalist structural access
to emergent class power. The ANC leadership is conducting a
home-coming of sorts, but revolutionary it is not.