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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 access.

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 Africa.

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 conditioned humility.

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.