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Umsebenzi Online

  • Red Alert: ANC National General Council an important turning point

Blade Nzimande, General Secretary

3000 delegates, including delegations from the SACP and COSATU, gathered together for the ANC?s second NGC between 29 June and 3 July 2005 in Tshwane. For the delegates, and indeed for the commentators in the public media, there was no doubt that this marked a very decisive moment in the ongoing South African transition. But what is the precise character and significance of this turning point?

The most dramatic development at the NGC was the refusal, from the floor of the conference, to accept cde Jacob Zuma?s withdrawal from his organisational responsibilities as deputy president of the ANC. What the majority of delegates were saying is that the National Working Committee of the ANC could not agree to such a withdrawal without first consulting the membership of the organisation that had voted cde Zuma into the position in the first place. In offering its full support to cde Zuma in his forthcoming trial, the NGC was acknowledging that a difficult time lies ahead, both for him and for the movement as a whole. ANC president, cde Thabo Mbeki spoke for us all when, in his closing remarks to the NGC, he expressed hope that the trial would be dignified and, above all, not unduly prolonged.

But the NGC decision on cde Zuma was, in many ways, symptomatic of a much broader range of issues. Above all, branch delegates were affirming and re-claiming the democratic, mass-based character of their organisation. Contrary to predictions in some quarters, while feelings on the deputy presidency cast their influence across proceedings, they did not crowd out detailed, in-depth discussion on a very wide range of organisational and policy questions.

In the run-up to the NGC, in Umsebenzi Online, the SACP issued a number of discussion papers responding to the general situation in the ANC and to the ANC NGC papers. The SACP delegates at the council, and the many other SACP members who were there as delegates from ANC and COSATU structures, were agreeably surprised to find just how much our concerns and criticisms were shared by the great majority of ANC members. Indeed, in many commissions and in plenary discussions, ANC branch representatives often expressed concerns that we had merely flagged, but in much greater detail and with a truly grounded appreciation of the challenges and problems.

ANC secretary general cde Kgalema Motlanthe set the ball rolling in this regard in his organisational report to the NGC. The secretary general confirmed in essence that, while the ANC continues to expand its influence and its immense electoral support, organisationally there are extremely serious problems. Outside of electoral campaigns, the majority of ANC branches seem unable to sustain campaigns and active engagement with the communities in which they are located. The NGC has resolved that, working together with its alliance partners, the ANC needs to ?localise? the struggle for the NDR.

The rejection by the NGC of the key proposals in the ?Organisational Design Review of the ANC? paper needs to be understood in this context. Faced with the challenge of revitalising the structures of the ANC, the paper essentially opted for a ?modernisation? and centralised managerial model (based on ?third way? European and Australian social democratic examples). Among the proposals in this document that were rejected by the NGC were:

a§ permanent electoral commission to vet and amend not just ANC lists for public representative elections (something we already have, in essence), but also for ANC structures themselves;

sectoral branches (with the same standing,§ presumably, as current branches) for, amongst others, professionals ? with the obvious danger that we would end up with two kinds of branches, those for the poor and those for the relatively better off;
original powers to be given§ to the NWC, a body not elected directly by national conferences; and

the§ possibility of a separate ?parliamentary wing? of the ANC.

An overwhelming majority of delegates felt, correctly in my view, that these and other proposals would deepen rather than alleviate the organisational stagnation of the ANC. However well-intentioned the proposals, they were essentially about increasing a centralised and managerialist control over the movement. In the composite report from all commissions, the NGC expressed a ?strong reaffirmation of the character of the ANC as a national liberation movement. While we are a ruling party and must fight elections, we remain a mass movement.? The report went further to say that ?ANC branches must become more directly involved in the struggles of the people on the ground.?

Perhaps even more significantly, moving from the organisational and broad strategic discussion, the NGC also sought to contribute directly to the more detailed development of social and economic policy. Since 1994, we have had a deepening concern that, as a movement, we have been operating with two languages. On the one hand, there is the traditional language of our national liberation movement (?strategy and tactics?, the NDR, ?motive forces?, ?a movement biased towards the working class?, etc). It is language that has been invoked in all of the ANC National Conferences since 1994 ?

Bloemfontein, Mafeking and Stellenbosch. But this language, and the ideological positions it implies, has often seemed to be increasingly remote from and trumped by the often extremely technocratic language we have used to describe and debate economic or social policy. While technical complexity is perhaps inevitable in government, we have felt that it is more than just complexity that has been at stake. Technocratic language is never ideologically innocent.

This is exactly what delegates felt at the NGC. In the report from the commissions on the Theory of Development, it was said that the commissions had identified a number of weaknesses in the preparatory document. In particular, the document was not pitched at a level that would be conducive to robust discussion at the branch level. But this was not just a complaint about language and complexity. It reflects a profound understanding of the key challenges confronting our revolution in the present situation.

There is now, for instance, a fairly unanimous acceptance across our movement that there is an imperative to construct a ?developmental state?, a state that is strategically active in the economy in order to overcome the crises of under-development that affect our society. But what kind of developmental state are we trying to build? It is here, once more, that there are likely to be different views. One view might want to emulate the ?Asian Tiger? developmental state ? a modernising, relatively authoritarian, managerialist state with close ties to an emerging, indigenous bourgeoisie. It is precisely this model of a developmental state that the NGC has rejected.

?In many international cases?, the commissions report notes, ?the developmental state has been characterised by a high degree of integration between business and government. The South African developmental state has different advantages and challenges. While we seek to engage private capital strategically, in South Africa the developmental state needs to be buttressed and guided by a mass-based, democratic liberation movement in a context in which the economy is still dominated by a developed, but largely white, capitalist class.?

This theme is clearly re-stated in the Declaration of the NGC: ?This NGC believes that we have now entered a new phase of the our NDR?at the heart of this new phase is the challenge of promoting and accelerating sustained development and shared growth, spearheaded by a democratic developmental state, guided and buttressed by an ANC-led popular movement and working in partnership with the people of our country.?

These formulations make it possible to understand the profound connection between the apparently disparate issues that emerged as central concerns of the NGC. Not only would, for instance, more flexible labour markets that erode worker rights be an economically mistaken approach, it would also, critically, further destabilise the critical mass force that is central to buttressing the South African developmental state. The affirmation of inner-party democracy is not just about democracy, it is a critical element of ensuring that the developmental state has the capacity and mass-based power to carry through the tasks of the NDR in the face of an entrenched, developed, globalised and powerful capitalist class that is overwhelmingly white. And the conviction that economic policy-making, and particularly, key strategic choices, cannot simply be left to technocrats (who are never ideologically neutral) is equally connected to the only kind of developmental state that has any prospect of success in the actual conditions of South Africa.

Provided we do not fall into a shallow politics, that reduces the NGC to a contest between personalities, victors and defeated; provided we understand that there are not just two choices (either technocratic managerialism or populism), but that we need a popular-driven, technically competent democratic developmental path; and provided we move ahead as a united liberation movement behind a unified collective leadership ? then the NGC of 2005 will, indeed, prove to have been an absolutely decisive moment in our revolution. 

As the SACP we particularly welcome the re-affirmation of an ANC with a working class bias, with the working class as the principal motive force of the national democratic revolution. This is an important re-affirmation in the wake of the post-1994 attempts to characterise every other conceivable class force as a motive force, an attempt at an ideological ?re-design? of the ANC.

As the SACP we have a special role to play ? as the Party of the working class in building the capacity of this class to assert itself and play the role of the leading motive force. It is an assertion that will have to be won on the ground, in the crucible of the class, national and gender struggles.