As the African National Congress heads to its centenary conference in Mangaung and on to the end of its second decade in power there is still considerable popular fidelity to the ANC as an idea and as an identity. But the ANC does face declining electoral support, escalating popular protest and increasing hostility from the media, intellectuals and much of civil society. The authoritarian currents in the party like to blame all of this on sinister attempts to oppose a democratic government. Its true enough that some forms of critique levelled at the ANC have been deeply inflected by elitism and racism. But its equally true that, if we take the party's claims about its intentions seriously, its failing, and failing badly, in all kinds of ways.
Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.
Nonetheless for many people the ANC still holds its status as the party of freedom and remains enmeshed with the idea of the nation and collective social virtue. Disappointment in the actual practices of the ANC doesn't always lead to disenchantment with the idea of the ANC. People often find ways to sustain their faith by, for instance, ascribing their bad experiences to a local layer of leadership while retaining confidence in higher levels of leadership. If they have lost confidence in the senior figures in the party the failings of this leadership are often seen as an aberration that will, in time, be corrected as the ANC is returned to what is imagined to be its true form.
Nonetheless the distance between the ANC as idea and the ANC as reality is sufficiently stark for its hegemony to be slowly but steadily fracturing. The party's responses to this have not always been pretty and have often been carried on currents of real paranoia. This should not surprise us. Paranoia is often learned behaviour and the ANC has a long history of suffering genuine persecution and being the object of genuinely conspiratorial machinations. This experience was compounded by the fact that the militarisation of the struggle often allowed authoritarian personalities to come to the fore, that its underground nature sometimes allowed manipulative and secretive personalities to come to the fore and that, as a nationalist movement against racist oppression, there was always the temptation to collapse into a counter Manicheanism to that of the apartheid state. But none of this means that its paranoia, perhaps most infamously marked by a habitual recourse to baseless allegations of conspiracy to explain away popular dissent, is not dangerous. It has often resulted in violence meted out or sanctioned by the state.
But the document on organisational renewal recently released by the ANC in the lead up the conference in Mangaung is refreshingly free of the paranoia into which the party has so often descended. It's also much less given to the messianic certainties that have often characterised its thinking in the past. It concedes that while “The historical narrative of a clash between forces of liberation and those who want to take us back has proved potent so far” it will not retain this potency for ever and, perhaps sobered by its expedience in the Western Cape, goes so far as to recommend that “The ANC should build its own independent organisational machinery and institutional capabilities so that it can continue to survive even when it is not in power.”
This document is a rational and honest engagement with some of the problems that threaten to engulf the party including the descent into what it calls 'palace politics', corruption, popular demobilisation, bureaucratisation, factionalism, the failures of most of its branches and the limited capacities of local government to effect change. In a refreshing break with the tendency to decide, from above, what the people think the writer or writers of this document also have a good sense of the broad outlines of actually existing popular sentiment including the widespread anger at the perception that politicians and officials “are seen as putting their friends and families first”, the sense of popular alienation from the spaces where political decisions are made and the anger at the way in which party machinery is only cranked into life on the ground at election time.
Moreover it contains a nuanced and rational assessment of the ongoing waves of popular protest. There is a decisive break with the paranoia and grossly anti-democratic sentiments that have so often typified the ANC's engagement with both the scattered protests that have collectively amounted to a rebellion of the poor and the more organised and sustained popular movements.
The document is also strikingly honest about some of the failures of the ANC. It observes, for instance, that “Most of our deployed cadres have been found wanting on issues of ethics and integrity” and that the use of money and anti-democratic practices to wage factional battles has been disastrous. It calls for 'drastic' and 'consistent' action to reverse the descent into a politics of factionalism organised around competition for money and power rather than principle.
But along with some remarkable aspects the document also has some serious limits. It makes lazy recourse to the idea that current social problems are all a 'legacy of the past' and does not face up to the degree to which inequalities have been actively reinscribed since 1994. It's equally lazy in the way in which a purely technocratic conception of progress reduced to numbers and units 'delivered' masks the lived experience of development which is often rather different. The fact that a toilet has been 'delivered' does not mean that it actually works. And in some cases development that looks good on paper is, in reality, accompanied by violence and new forms of exclusion – like forced removals. Moreover the document is blind to the extent to which forums for popular participation, like ward committees and community policing forums, have often become nodes through which a top down and at times violent containment of popular concerns is entrenched rather than avenues for their free expression. There is a culpable silence on the degree to which popular protests and movements have faced real repression at the hands of both the party and the state. And the kindest possible interpretation of its description of the ANC as 'a disciplined force of the left' and the current moment as a 'phase in the revolution' are that these phrases signify an aspiration. But presented as statements of fact they could also, depending on one's mood, be read as comedy or tragedy.
But be that as it may this document does mark a stated intention by at least some current within the ANC to move away from the top-down approach to both politics and development that has characterised the party in power. It recognises that “The branch serves as another bureaucratic layer instead of a centre of popular involvement in transformative politics”. It also calls for a popular activism that “differs from 'service delivery' because the masses should not be spectators of government delivery” and that, on the contrary, “activism proceeds from the premise that development is contested and communities can shape the kind of development they want.”
In the past people, often loyal ANC supporters, that have tried to openly and democratically contest development from below have been arrested, beaten, tortured, jailed on trumped up charges, subject to public death threats and driven from their homes. The party has routinely responded to desires to participate in decision making around development, even on the basis of very modest aspirations, as if they were 'political' and therefore illegitimate or even, in some cases, treasonous. The recognition that people have a democratic right to contest development is a significant and welcome break with current assumptions.
But less encouragingly there's no break in this document from the assumption that the ANC should be central to all nodes of potentially progressive power in society, or any recognition that organisational diversity, and where necessary autonomy, is important for democracy. In fact at times it is assumed, incorrectly and dangerously, that the ANC and its partners alone constitutes the 'progressive forces' or the 'democratic movement'. The idea that popular mobilisation should be engaged rather than shut out and repressed, and that the exercise of state power should be opened to influence from popular mobilisation, could mark a proposal to turn to more sophisticated and effective methods of containment – characterised by respectful meetings that go nowhere rather than insults in the media, rubber bullets on the streets and assaults in the holding cells. But it could also mark a thaw of sorts.
It would be both churlish and irresponsible not to welcome sincere attempts to reform the ANC. But it would be naïve to assume good faith when protestations of sincerity are not matched with action. The decisive actions that we do see are, like the machinations around the instalment of Richard Mdluli as the head of Crime Intelligence – the intelligence unit that has for many years been consistently and unlawfully misused to oppose grassroots mobilisation – are, on balance, rapidly entrenching the crisis into which the ANC has sunk.
And unless we see action, decisive action, declarations of sincere commitments to reform the party should be read, irrespective of the intentions of the author or authors, as objectively functioning as ideological cover for a party rapidly slipping into an ever more grotesque embrace of crony capitalism for the rich and clientalism, welfare and repression for the poor.
But it's also necessary to ask whether or not the ANC is in fact reformable. The central problem that any attempt to reform the ANC must confront is that from its commanding heights down to the branches and ward committees much of the party has become fundamentally concerned with contestation for the right to extract private wealth from the state. The ideas of collective emancipation that animated the party in its best moments have been systemically reduced to the idea of liberation as the private accrual of wealth. In some cases this has reached such extremes that party and state structures, at times including the police, have become enmeshed with outright criminality. What this document bravely calls the “tyranny of money in the election of leadership” will not be decisively broken by the adoption of a statement of principle in Mangaung. The fact is that holding fast to the principles elaborated in this document would require a revolution within the ANC. All the factions contesting for power in Mangaung, not to mention plenty of office bearers at the local level too, would have to be swept away. And that, as we all know, is about as likely as hell freezing over. But if the principles elaborated in this document do result in any real steps being taken to reform the ANC in practice, they must, even if they are limited, be welcomed.
Read more articles by Richard Pithouse.
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