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By:  Mercia Andrews, Director at Trust for Community Outreach and Education 


The ANC celebrated its 100th anniversary on 8 January 2012. This is indeed a major achievement for the oldest liberation movement in Africa. In its history it has had to negotiate many difficult challenges, perhaps none more so than retaining a broad unity while maintaining the ability to act and implement strategy.


In power, however, the ANC has failed to break up the monopolies that dominate the South African economy, corporatised and privatised key state enterprises and functions, and delivered our economy to the WTO and the needs of predatory finance capital.


In the past two decades, the ANC has shifted its base from the masses to a dependence on the state bureaucracy, the party machinery and a new elite in both rural and urban areas. Increasingly the ANC is becoming a party of the new elite.


Unless social movements, strong unions and radical initiatives exist and mobilise around alternatives for a broad-based anti-capitalist platform, we will not see the fruits of 100 years of struggle.


The ANC celebrated its 100th anniversary on 8 January 2012. This is indeed a major achievement for the oldest liberation movement in Africa. In its history it has had to negotiate many difficult challenges, perhaps none more so than retaining a broad unity while maintaining the ability to act and implement strategy. This is a remarkable part of the history of the ANC and bears testimony to generations of extraordinary leaders who shaped and guided the ANC.


Celebrations, though, often have blind spots. One such blind spot is the tendency to overlook the fact that the struggle for liberation in South Africa had many impulses, different currents, divergent voices and positions which existed both inside and outside the ANC and which ultimately helped define the ANC.


Another is to ask why socialist forces, mainly the South African Communist Party (SACP) – which has devoted much of its existence to building and influencing the ANC – have been unable to ensure an anti-capitalist orientation to the movement. This is a critical question to pose for forces on the left. Joining in the celebration of 100 years of the ANC requires us to reflect on both of these questions.


At the beginning of the 20th century, the ANC started out as a moderate organisation of the black middle classes based on African Nationalism. It developed from a respectful lobbying group to a mass campaigning organisation, a revolutionary force and eventually a party of government. While it initially paid little heed to the needs of the rural poor and black working class, the emergence of trade union organisation and specifically the rise of the Industrial Commercial Workers Union (ICU) helped to reorient the organisation towards the dispossessed masses.


It was predominantly in the 1950s, when, influenced by African independence struggles and the then-banned SACP, which started to play a leading role inside the ANC, that the ANC began to embrace militant mass action requiring the mobilisation of working-class constituencies, other organisations and movements. To broaden its support base amongst other oppressed layers of society, it began to build alliances with like-minded movements such as the Natal Indian Congress, Coloured People’s Congress and the (white) Congress of Democrats. Very significantly, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) joined the Congress Alliance and made up its trade union wing.


The adoption of the Freedom Charter brought these and other movements together and enabled the ANC to operate as a broad church in which nationalists, communists, and liberals, etc. united around the goal of overthrowing the apartheid state. 


Towards new struggle and movement


It is clear that the past twenty years has transformed the ANC from a movement embedded in the struggle for freedom and resistance (the movement that led bus boycotts, the women’s anti-pass march on Pretoria, mineworker strikes, campaigns to free political prisoners, convoking the Congress of the People and the adoption of the Freedom Charter) to a political party that is ultimately responsive to the needs of international and local capital. This is true even if aspirant sections of the petty bourgeoisie rooted in the state bureaucracy and state enterprises rest on the ANC’s support in the working class.


In power, the ANC has failed to break up the monopolies that dominate the South African economy when it was on the agenda, allowed the biggest corporations to de-list from South Africa and re-invent themselves as foreign corporations, corporatised and privatised key state enterprises and functions, and delivered our economy to the WTO and the needs of predatory finance capital.


The liberalisation of the South African economy has led to the deepening of inequality (South Africa is now regarded as the most unequal country in the world), and unemployment has more than doubled, with real unemployment today being closer to 40% – one of the highest rates in the world. And it is under the ANC’s watch that almost 40% of the workforce is now employed through labour brokers.


By prioritising Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and the promotion of a black capitalist class (as its strategy for deracialising the economy) the phenomenon of tenderpreneurial corruption has come to paralyse state capacity, creating deep crises in the education and health systems and eroding local government capacity.


The crisis in delivery of basic services such as housing, sanitation and electricity have given rise to, according to police statistics, more than 6,000 protests last year alone. A new wave of class struggle driven by the precariat on the one hand and organised labour in defence of jobs and wages on the other hand, cries out for political coordination and unity in action – something the ANC-of-struggle provided previously.


The SACP, which still sees itself as the ‘vanguard of the working class’, rather than recognising the significance of these struggles for determining a new working-class agenda in the yet to be transformed South Africa, has liquidated itself into the Zuma project, taking responsibility for governing over South Africa’s post-apartheid tragedy.


In the past two decades, the ANC has shifted its base from the masses to a dependence on the state bureaucracy, the party machinery and a new elite in both rural and urban areas. Increasingly the ANC is becoming a party of the new elite.


Change can no longer come from within the ANC. Polokwane was an example of the inability of the left inside the ANC to bring about any meaningful change. Polokwane, as an attempt to re-invigorate a democratic culture and reconnect the organisation with the general membership, so as to replace the ‘1996 class project’ (neoliberalism) with a radical strategy of wealth redistribution, has been blocked by the hold of a bureaucracy within the state and in the ANC itself.


The predatory elite (tenderpreneurs) have undermined any progressive change in economic policy. The pace of land reform remains the same. Even the discredited willing-buyer, willing-seller policy remains in place and the promised National Health Insurance is very far from being realised.


Unless social movements, strong unions and radical initiatives such as the recently formed Democratic Left Front exist and mobilise around alternatives for a broad-based anti-capitalist platform, we will not see the fruits of 100 years of struggle.