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LOST IN POLITICAL TRANSLATION OP-ED

Collapse of ANC directly related to shift away from being a liberation movement

Collapse of ANC directly related to shift away from being a liberation movement
Illustrative image | Source: ANC flag (Photo: Leila Dougan)

In the transition from insurrection to negotiations and towards the establishment of an ANC-led government, the ANC was advised vigorously by Western scholars, governments, local business people and business schools to ‘normalise’ and ‘modernise’ South African politics, words which may sound neutral and professional, but are not.

For some time, many people have been preoccupied with the fate of popular struggle, popular agency and popular activities in South African politics. My sense is that the victory that the liberation Struggle achieved in 1994 was very important, but also entailed a defeat, the defeat of the popular. (See M Neocosmos, “From People’s Politics to State Politics: Aspects of National Liberation in South Africa” in A Olukoshi and L Laakso (eds), Politics of opposition in contemporary Africa. Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute and relating more directly to nationalist movements inheriting the colonial state, see M Mamdani “State and Civil Society in Contemporary Africa: Reconceptualizing the Birth of State Nationalism and the Defeat of Popular Movements,” Africa Development, 15, 1990).

Insofar as liberation movements came to lead states, it was on the model of the colonial state. They then tended to set themselves up in a way that insulated themselves from the influence and pressure of the popular.

What happened in South Africa bore similar but also distinct features. In the transition from insurrection to negotiations and towards the establishment of an ANC-led government, the ANC was advised vigorously by Western scholars, governments, local business people and business schools to “normalise” and “modernise” South African politics, words which may sound neutral and professional, but are not that.

I have come to realise in later years that professionalisation of government is more important than many of us appreciated. But the thrust of the objectives of these advisers was not on professionalising government and similar skills required to operate the public service on an effective basis and ensuring the civil service and managers acquired a degree of autonomy along the lines suggested in the report of the National Planning Commission.

Becoming a political party along lines of Western parties

The object of the early arguments for modernisation and normalisation was in fact to transform the ANC from being a liberation movement — in the process of becoming a government — into being a conventional political party, along the lines of Western political parties.

The broad character of Western political parties can be seen by looking at the United States today. The relationship between legislators and the executive towards their supposed constituency, i.e. the members of these political parties and the population, is one where this base is shut out of processes of influence and decision-making.

Read more in Daily Maverick: How to professionalise local government: The time has come to translate good intentions and ideas into action

This is illustrated in relation to Israel. The US president, who is a member of the Democratic Party, and senators and members of the House of Representatives continue to pursue a course in regard to Israel which all polls and surveys demonstrate is disapproved of by their own constituencies.

Now this is one of the characteristics of becoming a conventional political party, that a distance develops between it and its base by virtue of holding power.

It varies to what extent members of parliament and legislatures in other countries go back and consult with their constituencies. In the United Kingdom, there are some members of parliament who regularly consult with constituencies, but they appear to be few.

The general tendency is to have episodic engagements with their constituency, and this primarily relates to when they have to be re-elected and need to ensure a majority or increase that majority for their party.

South Africa: UDF, and ANC after 1990

In the case of South Africa, at the time of transition, the ANC was still a liberation movement, not a party. It was also an organisation with a significant popular base, not very different in many ways from that of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

The UDF had been the main example in South Africa in recent times of popular power. The ANC was conceived at the time of its unbanning in 1990 — in the eyes of many of the UDF leaders and members of affiliates — to be the most senior and experienced version of the popular Struggle.

The notion of a liberation organisation was understood as being that of people organising and being organised on a popular mass basis. When I was head of political education in the ANC just after the unbanning, we understood our role as inducting members into what it meant to be a member of the ANC. Members of the Political Education Section at various levels had to transmit certain values and ways of organising to the membership and to explain what organising people meant.

Members were trained to undertake these processes in the various structures from which they came.

One of the key characteristics of popular struggle is not to preach and lecture and talk down to members. It is to listen and learn and gain understanding of issues and problems that concerned the masses from that contact, as well as transmitting whatever expertise the leaders may have acquired to the members, and having this cycle entail a two-way process of teaching and learning. As the NGO Human Awareness Programme used to say, “learn and teach, teach and learn” (the title of a booklet).

We also understood this process as one where there would not be a significant gap between leadership and the membership. The leadership or most of the leaders of the Struggle were immersed within the people from whom they came. Many of the leaders had emerged from some of the poorest communities among the African people and other black sections of the population.

And the white democrats who joined the Struggle were sometimes counselled on how to conduct themselves and generally tried to bear themselves with humility, and not have people defer to them because they had more social capital in the sense of university degrees and money at their disposal, and similar assets because of their opportunities in life.

In some ways, I’m drawing an idyllic picture, because it didn’t always happen this way. But that is what we understood when we wanted to retain the “Congress” character of the ANC and not have the ANC become a South African replica of the UK or US parties of today.

Changing the meaning of words through authoritarian parties

The way the gap between leadership and membership plays out can be seen in the United States today. The US is not just providing bombs to Israel that have incinerated 35,000 people, mainly women and children. It has also led to these parties redefining antisemitism to include opposition to Zionism and therefore included endorsing of the genocide against the Palestinians.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis news hub

In this context, the political parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, instead of being leaders in searching for truth about the conditions in the world and within their own country, are playing a key role in suppressing the truth and pressurising universities and other organisations to redefine the meaning of words to try and persuade people not to believe what they see before their eyes. To believe — as leading figures of the presidency and government figures suggest —that Israel is abiding by international law when the truth is that the Israeli government is undermining international law and setting an example that is very dangerous for the world. (See my recent series of four articles in polity.org.za and Daily Maverick on the Israeli genocide against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and their consciously undermining international law, published in March and April 2024).

It is also true of parties in the UK, though to a lesser extent, and it holds for government in Germany where pro-Palestinian actions are equated with antisemitism and have led to a series of repressive actions.

Our democracy is itself in trouble. We need to learn from others, but not from current examples of states like the US and Western Europe. DM

This article originally appeared on Creamer Media’s website: polity.org.za

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Well, that leaves us to learn democratic tendencies from China, Hamas and Russia and Iran…?

    • JDW 2023 says:

      I don’t believe that that is what the author is implying. Perhaps rather to reset and rediscover what real democracy is for ourselves. This line, I believe points, us in the right direction, “being leaders in searching for truth about the conditions in the world and within their own country”.

  • ST ST says:

    Thank you. It’s always interesting to learn perspectives on these issues. Language is a not so benign weapon! Normalise, modernise ?=neutralise. It’s not the same decolonising systems and mindsets. We long lost our soul, have relied on others to tell us what to do and think for so long. Most of the current ANC is likely too old or institutionalised in uncivil culture to learn (or even care to new tricks). Hopefully younger leaders across SA can learn/find the Goldie locks of SA democracy moving forward.

    Between external influences, lobbyists etc, governments do end up serving NOT those who put them there…by choice eg., corruption or design eg., economy. Still, it’s disheartening. Thankfully we get a chance to vote them out now & then.

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