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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 6, No. 22, 5 December 2007

In this Issue:


Red Alert

The revolution is on trial (7): The 1996 class project behind the aloofness of style

Blade Nzimande, General Secretary

The Augmented Central Committee met over the past weekend (30th November – 2nd December) in the context of heightened tensions and divisions within the leading formation of our alliance, the ANC. Although the main purpose of this last CC meeting for the year was to assess our own activities of 2007 and plan for 2008, it was important that the CC should also discuss the dynamic realities within the ANC in the run-up to its 52nd National Conference, now less than two weeks away.

In the weekend prior to the CC meeting, ANC provincial general councils had met throughout the country to consolidate their branch nominations for the election of ANC officials and the national executive committee. As our CC statement said, it is clear that “underpinning the pattern of nominations emerging from the ANC’s PGCs …and the ANC’s leagues, is a converging concern from a significant majority of ANC branch members and cadres. The call for a renewal of the ANC that was apparent in the ANC’s 2005 National General Council, that was reiterated clearly in June this year at the ANC’s National Policy Conference, has now been repeated and with greater insistence and intensity.”

Our statement also said that we are not going to endorse particular candidates for the ANC, but we are nevertheless deeply interested in the kind of collective leadership and policies that will emerge out of this ANC Conference. In addition we have said, things cannot continue as they have been over the last decade or so, change is definitely needed!

The CC statement goes on to say that the resounding call for renewal in the ANC converges around a fundamental concern: “Over the past decade the mass participatory traditions of the ANC have been run-down, consultation with and involvement of communities have been sidelined, and an unceasing offensive against alliance partners unleashed.”

If we are to go forward strategically, then we must move beyond mere lamentation. Nostalgia for a past in which the ANC conducted itself in a more activist and participatory manner, and in which the Alliance was functional, is understandable but insufficient. We need to ask: What has been behind the weakening of the ANC and of its mass activist traditions, as well as a cohesive Alliance? What accounts for the perceived aloofness of key ANC leadership, or the incessant sarcasm directed at Alliance partners? Is it just a question of personality? Or has there been something more fundamental at work?

The role of capital’s high priests

If we are looking for underlying factors, then we might recall the role played by leading opinion-shapers, notably in the media, in the critical negotiations phase in the early 1990s. An elite, authoritarian aloofness was exactly what was being continuously advocated to the ANC’s leadership in this period…not by De Klerk, not by Buthelezi, not by Eugene Terreblanche (who all had their own agendas)…but by the leading liberal “democrats” of the day!

In mid-1992, with the negotiations stalled, with the ANC-alliance having launched mass action, and with the regime having responded with the Boipatong massacre, the doyen of liberal journalism in South Africa, the late Stanley Uys wrote: “What mass action has done…has been to democratise ANC involvement in negotiations…” (The Star, July 30, 1992). That sounds like a compliment, surely? But no, this democratising of the ANC’s involvement in negotiations, Uys went on to say, has “made agreements so much more difficult to reach….The longer the ANC engages in mass action, the more the country can kiss goodbye to fruitful negotiations.” Democratisation and “fruitful negotiations” were, from the vantage point of our local liberals, mutually contradictory!

How on earth will South Africa reach a new dispensation, asked the same Stanley Uys in The Star in mid-August 1992, “unless elites on either side arrange it, as they usually do in history?” The longing for a behind-closed-doors elite pact was all over the op ed pages of our leading newspapers at the time. Consider some of the headlines: “NEEDED A COUNCIL OF THE WISE” (Lawrence Schlemmer, The Star, July 28 2002); “WHAT WE NEED IS THREE WISE MEN” (Alex Boraine, The Star, August 7, 2002); “KING RULES, OR BARONS, OR THE UPSTARTS TAKE OVER” (Ken Owen, Sunday Times, July 26, 2002). Scratch the surface of our liberals and you find feudal sentiments!

Of course, in the end, it was the tragic slaying of Chris Hani and the massive popular response to this deed that eventually unblocked the stalled negotiations and clinched the final deal – so much for the fear of mass action.

But it was not just a misplaced “liberal” concern that mass participation would “rock the boat” of negotiations that was at stake here. Van Zyl Slabbert in several interventions in the 1990s made this clear: “One of the most daunting challenges facing [a future government] is to protect the new political space created by negotiations from being used to contest the historical imbalances that precipitated negotiation in the first place…” (The Quest for Democracy. South Africa in Transition, Penguin, 2002, p.90)

What on earth would be the use of “new political space” if it could not be used to address the appalling social and economic “historic imbalances”?

What all of this underlines is that, for this body of liberal opinion in our country, the future democratic dispensation needed to be a low intensity democracy. In this regard, they were speaking for incumbent monopoly capital which, for more than a century, had benefited enormously from white minority rule. By the 1980s, however, white minority rule was increasingly dysfunctional for sustained profitability as a result of the unending wave of semi-insurrectionary struggles, the burden of wars throughout the region, and the closing net of international sanctions. But the opening up to majority-rule democracy was not born of any democratic commitment on their part – it was seen as a risky adventure that needed to be as formalistic and as curtailed as possible. The genie of mass participation that had poured out of the bottle from 1976 onwards had to be stuffed back firmly into the bottle. Popular democracy had to be curtailed…in the name of “democracy”, of course.

The 1996 class project

All of this should be largely irrelevant now; a matter of forgotten history – but sadly the perspective of these liberal voices was actually shared by leading personalities within the ANC itself. In April 1995, on the occasion of the first anniversary of our democratic breakthrough, then deputy president of the country, cde Thabo Mbeki provided an extensive interview to The Star. In the course of the interview he was asked whether the Alliance would survive. Cde Mbeki did not answer the question about the Alliance directly. Instead, he said that the ANC itself would split into its component ideological parts – a liberal democratic party, a social democratic party. He felt (this was 1995) that it would happen within five years or so. The ANC, he said, was a multi-class and multi-ideological formation, a reality necessitated by the struggle against apartheid which was now over. Clearly, cde Mbeki at the time believed that South Africa was on the verge of a “normalised” political dispensation, a politics typical of advanced capitalist societies in which there is electoral alternance between largely indistinguishable centre-right and centre-left parties. This kind of belief accounts, in part, for the attempts to cut the Alliance partners loose, for constant goading from at least 1995, and for the irritation at our continued survival and influence within the ANC itself.

There is no reason to believe that cde Mbeki still believes that the ANC itself will split, or that we are on the verge of a “western” democracy. Certainly his opening address to the ANC’s National Political Conference in June this year strongly affirmed the strategic nature of the ANC-led tripartite alliance. And, although this speech was widely interpreted as an attack on the SACP (“we will not allow alliance partners to dictate to us”) - which it might as well have been - in the SACP we welcomed the reaffirmation of the strategic nature of our alliance and we reaffirmed in our turn that we have no intention of dictating to anyone.

But it is not just a question of the durability of the Alliance. The political agenda that cde Mbeki has driven over the last decade has been premised on the assumption that the first priority was to stabilise the commanding heights of our capitalist system, and return it to profitability. The original assumption was that a 6% growth rate (regardless of the quality and trajectory of that growth) was the tide that would lift all ships, a necessary and sufficient condition to produce the changes for which the ANC’s mass base had been struggling for decades.

The market, rather than popular mobilisation and engagement, was to be the new motive force of change. The invisible hand of millions of willing-sellers and willing-buyers would drive change. A new technocratic elite that “managed” the capitalist economy, rather than grass-roots activists, became the new leading cadre of the ANC. And the key alliance, was no longer the Tripartite, but the compact between established white capital and an emerging, ANC-aligned black capitalist stratum. This compact was sealed in a thousand deals – arms procurement packages, SAA and Telkom privatisations, Coegas, Gautrains, and the like.

This agenda has been deeply mistrusted not just by the Alliance partners, but by the mass of ordinary ANC activists and supporters. It has required an aloof, behind-close-doors style. It is an agenda that has seen the demobilisation of the ANC, a dysfunctional Alliance, and a movement enmeshed in round after round of corruption scandals and factionalism based, not on ideology, but on spats over tenders and deals.

This, we believe, is what fundamentally underpins the wave of demands calling for a renewal within the ANC itself. For the SACP, all of this emphasises the need for either a significant change of leadership in the ANC, or a significant change of heart from the leadership. Things cannot go on as they are!

For our revolution to be saved and consolidated, we need to reclaim the working class bias of the ANC – our movement. We need policies that reflect this working class bias. We need a collective leadership that will effectively engage with its mass base and Alliance partners. A precondition for deepening and consolidating the national democratic revolution is a unifying style of leadership, where all of our movement’s constituent parts – workers, women, youth, former MK combatants, students and communists – feel that indeed the ANC is not just their home, but the only weapon to defeat and transform the legacy, and continued reproduction of colonialism of a special type. This is the task before, not only the ANC 52nd National Conference – but the whole of our Alliance and movement!