South Africa


ANC ‘renewal’ will remain an empty slogan until the organisation breaks its current leadership cycle

ANC ‘renewal’ will remain an empty slogan until the organisation breaks its current leadership cycle
The author argues that it is unlikely that the current ANC can be revitalised into a coherent, dynamic, democratic force contributing to the urgent emancipatory tasks of the present and future. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

‘Renewal’ has become a priority for the ANC, following election setbacks. It is, however, unlikely to represent a meaningful rupture with the organisation’s current decadence. Thabo Mbeki is assisting the process, and he emphasises the weaknesses of the current membership. But it is the current leadership who enlisted these members. Insofar as it drives ‘renewal’ it is unlikely to result in transformation in the ANC’s character.

For a long time, despite some disagreement, I have admired the contributions of Thabo Mbeki to the understanding of the liberation struggle, especially during the 1980s. I recall his being the first person that I heard — on the ANC’s Radio Freedom — to use the formulation “criminalise” to describe how the apartheid regime depicted and treated the struggle for liberation.

Mbeki is now involved in trying to assist the current ANC in achieving the declared goal of “renewal”. Consequently, he could be an asset for the organisation in this time of crisis. But there are problems with his contribution, mainly in his seeing the decline of the ANC relating primarily to the quality of its members. That is why he invokes Lenin’s phrase, “better fewer, but better”. On principle, this is a correct response, that members of an organisation should embody certain qualities, and this is subverted if the process of becoming members enables a range of shady characters to become part of its ranks.

It is true that many entered the ANC for reasons that subvert its constitutional goals, but the main problem – which I raised in criticising his letter to ANC Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte – is that the blame lies with leaders who have allowed induction processes to collapse or who have qualities that mean that what induction they conduct may well be into criminality. (See here for the full letter of Mbeki to Duarte. See also his Chief Albert Luthuli Memorial Lecture where similar sentiments are expressed).

Before and after the ANC was unbanned, I was involved in political education and after unbanning, one of our main tasks was to empower branches to induct members into the ANC, its policies, strategies, and tactics. What it meant to be an ANC member when the organisation was unbanned could not be the same as when it operated illegally. Also, it was necessary to factor in the overall changed political conjuncture both inside and outside the country. It should be recalled that the world was then in transition towards what came to be characterised as a unipolar world with the collapse of former Communist Party-led states in Eastern Europe.

For much of the period of exile, not only the SACP but also the ANC would refer to their organisations operating in a period of transition from capitalism to socialism. Thus, the much-celebrated 1969 ANC Strategy and Tactics document, adopted at Morogoro in Tanzania begins:

“The struggle of the oppressed people of South Africa is taking place within an international context of transition to the Socialist system, of the breakdown of the colonial system as a result of national liberation and socialist revolutions, and the fight for social and economic progress by the people of the whole world.”

In the case of the SACP, this formulation was a standard feature, enduring in its 1989 programme, which includes:

“The revolutionary struggle in South Africa is part of a world revolutionary process whose main tendency is the transition from capitalism to socialism, from societies based on exploitation to a new world free of exploitation and oppression.”

That trajectory proved inaccurate, which is not to say that the aspiration for socialism died in the world in general or in South Africa. But any movement for national liberation or socialism could no longer count on support of a “socialist bloc” for training and other support or development funds.

It was not simply military training that was provided by the states of Eastern Europe, for many ANC members were trained in medicine and several other fields in the former “socialist bloc”. I remember when I visited Cuba for a solidarity conference in the 1990s that the ANC chief representative was fluent in Spanish, which he had learnt in the USSR, part of a longstanding tradition emphasising multilingualism, stretching into the Tsarist period.

Regarding post-liberation support, Cuba was one of the states that were hit hardest insofar as it had received subsidised fuel and other assistance from the USSR and, with the Soviet collapse, entered what it called a “special period”, to do its best to adjust to the fallout.

Inducting members into a newly legalised organisation raised several questions about how to relate to these changed conditions, what it meant to be a member in a situation of legality where joining did not entail the type of risks that were faced until at least 1990. It had to be asked how one maintained the level of understanding and commitment that was required (albeit not always realised) in the period of illegality. What that understanding meant after 1990 could not simply be a replication of what members and cadres had been taught in conditions of illegality.

In the period of illegality, until 1990, the ANC and its allies were engaged in insurrection, aiming to overthrow the apartheid regime by a range of factors, and armed struggle was seen as a central feature, although it was subordinate to political strategies and tactics. (Some contest this, arguing that Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) was often conceived as the central factor to the detriment of popular forces, international and other modes of resistance). My belief is that the freedom that was inaugurated in 1994 (although not fully realised in developments that followed) derived from a combination of all forces of resistance — legal and illegal, local and national, international, military and militant non-violent methods.

The United Democratic Front (UDF) and other popular organisations were not simply fronts for the ANC. They took their own initiatives and had their own ideas on how to carry out or engage with ANC calls for action, notably in the period of “ungovernability” and “popular power”.

Many in the UDF leadership or affiliates were simultaneously, but secretly, involved in advancing the ANC call for insurrection. It was generally not stated that one had this affiliation because it was necessary to proclaim the legality of one’s operations in order to try to avoid repression.

It is important not to downplay MK, even if it could not defeat the SADF in a set battle — which was not one of its objectives. But MK mainly comprised people deriving from the oppressed. They were not meant to have their hands on weaponry or trained in the use of arms during apartheid. MK was able to attack police stations and military installations and acted in support of popular grievances and struggles. Whatever its military capability compared with the SADF, it inspired others who were in battle on a range of fronts against the apartheid regime.

Consequently, MK enjoyed great prestige. One of the results of the high regard in which MK was held is that when we in political education were grappling over how to play our role, we were sometimes advised to locate all the commissars of the MK camps and draw them into our programmes. We respected the role that the commissars had played in educating generations of soldiers in history and modes of analysis, so that it was not just the gun but the subjective understanding of the person behind the gun that mattered. (This is a paraphrase of a statement of the late Mark Shope, who, when young people wanted to simply go for military training, would caution them that the ANC did not want a proliferation of people under arms. It wanted to be sure of the political understanding of the person behind the gun).

Nevertheless, one could not simply transplant teachings of a time of war into the period of legality and fresh analysis needed to be developed to characterise the changed conditions and what challenges and opportunities these threw up and how the organisation needed to prepare itself.

The period of insurrection also needs to be considered for a reason that relates to the present, that we did not adequately address in our attempts to build a political education programme. Those who were involved in insurrection — at least, inside the country — were focused on overthrowing the government and not very interested in constitutional models. That may be one of the reasons that the ANC, despite being the key protagonist of the present Constitution, has proven to be ambiguous or worse in relation to the separation of party and state. It is important that it be part of any attempt to revitalise democratic life.

With these and other limitations, ideas were advanced for discussion, drawing on debates at ANC conferences and in the National Executive Committee (NEC). Political education programmes were developed, albeit with uneven success.

In the years that followed, processes of induction have not disappeared (I remember in the early years of this century how Gauteng still pursued an extensive political education programme). But these discussions, programmes and debates are no longer in the mainstream of the ANC. This is in line with contestation within the ANC no longer being over ideas and directions but between election slates that are seen as a route to enrichment by association with various candidates for election.

In the early 1990s, there was a perception that Thabo Mbeki and Chris Hani represented alternatives. Whether or not this was exaggerated, the two leaders were seen as representing different directions for the ANC, democratisation, and future development of the country. This was a time when people did not simply attach themselves to individuals, but argued over ideas that mattered to them, and which leaders best represented these.

When the media report continuously on contenders for election in the ANC’s December conference, they do readers a disservice in failing to identify the ideological affiliations (if any) of various candidates. What. if any, ideological content can we attribute to the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa? And if the “Radical Economic Transformation” (RET) forces are treated as an alternative, what exactly does that alternative represent, beyond a greater tendency to plunder the resources of the country?

If it is correct that we now have an ANC without ideas, a depoliticised and de-ideologised politics, into what are these leaders inducting members? Is it loyalty to this or that leader who may or may not also represent an opportunity to steal?

That being the case, whatever the quality of current ANC membership may be in terms of their political understanding and ethics, it cannot be remedied simply by culling members when those who have brought them into the organisation on a depoliticised basis remain leaders in charge of admission to membership.

The major rot has been at the leadership level and “renewal” is in the hands of those who have either stolen or been complicit in stealing resources that could have been used for improving the lives of the poor.

Under the presidency of Ramaphosa, Ace Magashule was allowed to draw into ANC HQ a lot of the most corrupt former Ministers, enjoying ministerial salaries, with Nomvula Mokonyane, fingered multiple times in the State Capture Commission, as Head of Organising. Organising is the central site for managing and auditing the admission of members, auditing being a central recommendation of former President Mbeki.

Thus, Mbeki speaks of corrupt elements gaining entry and retaining opportunists and careerists in the ranks of the ANC. Who gains entry into the organisation, if it is to be a democratic force, ought to be mediated by induction into specific values. But those charged with this task are the major forces undermining an ANC of ethical values and ideas.  

The opportunists/careerists to whom Mbeki refers are everywhere but mainly at the top. That is not to suggest that these people were always that way. There was a moment when people, who were brave and selfless, turned and became different people. We need to understand how this happened if we are ever to break the cycle.

It is unlikely that the current ANC can be revitalised into a coherent, dynamic, democratic force contributing to the urgent emancipatory tasks of the present and future. What role it plays in remedying the problems of the present depends on how it evolves, though that may well not be as a governing party.

Realising the aspirations for an emancipatory future will require the strengthening of existing organisations and sectors committed to a sustainable democracy under the Constitution and the development of fresh organisations that can together rebuild democratic life and address burning issues of inequality and end the persistent resort to violence. DM

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: 


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