Like it or lumpen it — ANC can only blame South Africa’s masses for its failed revolution

Like it or lumpen it — ANC can only blame South Africa’s masses for its failed revolution
Paul Mashatile having a chat with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the 6th National Policy Conference of the African National Congress (ANC) held at Nasrec on 29 July 2022. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

If it is to fly at a policy conference, honesty about the mess we’re in must be translated into an archaic form of Marxist-speak. So here is our guide to the ruling party’s particularly opaque brand of revolutionary discourse.

Sorry, folks, but I’m still catching up with the ANC policy conference, particularly the policy discussions. It has taken me a while because decoding these ruminations is a delicate business, but it has to be done because ANC policies, if ever settled and enacted, could in fact have a meaningful impact on South Africa’s future. Note: I say “could”.

It was certainly refreshing to have Nkosa­zana Dlamini Zuma come out and say that South Africa has an overcrowding problem in schools. She could say this relatively straightforwardly because she was speaking, in actual words, and not writing a policy argument. And it was good to hear an ANC high-up being honest about a social problem we face.

Okay, it was about 25 years too late — township schools were overcrowded and dysfunctional in 1994, when the ANC took power, and they’re worse now. But at least she said it.

Presumably, she hadn’t noticed till now because she was busy being a health minister or, more recently, the minister in charge of municipalities. Oh, wait — the health system is also dysfunctional and so are the municipalities. She might like to check with the Auditor-General about that, and she should probably be able to get back to us on those issues round about the ANC’s next policy conference in five years’ time. Is that long enough, Your Highness?

Dlamini Zuma was also selective about naming problems in education. She could have mentioned that very little teaching goes on in those hectically overcrowded classrooms, that there is much crime and disorder in schools, and all attempts to raise the matric pass rate have failed dismally.

She goes on to say that “communities” are already trying to deal with these problems, by, for instance, building schools off their own bat. This sounds a bit like a cheer for the self-reliance of the masses, but it’s a sign that the state now expects the people, and the poorest of the people at that, to do the state’s job for it.

But at least she said it. And the ANC’s discussion documents for the policy conference (the written part) also make a commendable attempt to be honest about “objective conditions”, that is, to explain to its delegates why South Africa is generally in such a bad way and what must be done about it if the ANC is not to lose its electoral majority.

Losing that winning majority is, obviously, the great fear the ANC has to deal with right now. Upon that majority rests its claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the people of South Africa, its claim to be able to transform society, and the capacity of many of its members and office-bearers to loot state coffers.

But how does the ANC express its honest conclusions in its policy discussion? Wondering about that, I tackled its policy discussions as set forth in a special edition of Umrabulo, the title of which does not mean “the rabble”, as some might think. It means something like “debate” or “discussion”, just so you know.

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I haven’t got further than the introduction to this special edition, but I can tell you what it says. It says, in the politest and most circumlocutory way, that the ANC, as the sole legitimate representative of the people of South Africa, has largely failed to transform South African society in the ways it has been promising to do since about 1955.

It goes on to ask why this might be so, and to assign blame for this situation. Naturally, the ANC, which has been in power for 28 years, is not to blame. This is the point at which one collapses in helpless laughter and rolls about on the floor for a bit before, wiping away the tears, one struggles on through the document to see who, in fact, is to blame.

Reader, I can now reveal who’s to blame: it’s the lumpens. That may seem simple enough, but in fact it’s very complicated — as the document itself makes clear. It may be an attempt to be honest about objective conditions, but in order to fly at an ANC policy conference, such honesty has to be translated into a particularly archaic form of Marxist-speak. This is the result of the South African Communist Party having been the ANC’s internal think-tank for about 70 years, and in order to write such documents the ANC has to shuffle a few old commies out of retirement and teach them how to use a computer. But it was done.

So, who are the lumpens? Karl Marx and Freddy Engels did not speak Engels but German, and in German “lumpen” means rags or tatters: it refers to the people who can’t quite make it into the proletariat, who keep dropping out the bottom of it, and who then resort to crime and other sins. They’re also badly dressed. That’s why it’s used in the form “lumpenproletariat” — because of that proximity. “Lumpen” has this criminal connotation, too, and that’s how the ANC uses it. Think the July days of last year, the looting, the burning…

It’s widely understood in Marxist literature that the key attribute of the lumpenproletariat is its lack of class consciousness. The ANC bemoans the lack of such consciousness on the part of such people, while at the same time hailing the working class as the “core motive force of the revolution”.

Perhaps we should pause here for a moment and point out that all this revolutionary discourse can be euphemistically described as bullshit. There was no revolution. Had there been a revolution, believe me, we’d be much more transformed than we are now. But the ANC has to keep speaking this language, which is probably as opaque to most of its members as High Transylvanian.

As a connoisseur of Marxist discourse, I can at least translate this back into Engels for you. The document goes on to describe the lumpens, but to do so it uses a passage from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, a Marx polemic written when he’d already established “lumpen” as an insult and was now throwing it at anyone he didn’t like. So lumpen now includes not just the unemployed rabble, the prostitutes and criminals, but also “literati” — which may explain why Nathi Mthethwa doesn’t want to give any money to any actual cultural workers.

Going by the ANC’s definitions, “lumpen” surely applies to the 30 million South Africans dependent on welfare. So half the masses are now counter-revolutionary. Then there’s the “parasitic bureaucratic bourgeoisie”, so that’s just about everyone who works for the state. It’s anyone with a corporate job. It’s the elite who have money, so that includes the President and every member of Parliament.

It’s not just those beggars who now stand in our streets, four to a traffic light, who are lumpen, or those who rush out at the drop of a (Cele) hat to beat up a few zama zamas.

It seems the only section of society not guilty of “deviant conduct” is unionised workers. That’s about three million people, and half the unions are anti-ANC, so out of a population of 60 million that’s about 1.5 million people with the requisite class consciousness. Vive la révolution! DM168

Shaun de Waal is a writer and editor.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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