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ANC in minority — trying to understand the path(s) ahead for South Africa

ANC in minority — trying to understand the path(s) ahead for South Africa
Illustrative image | Sources: Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg via Getty Images | James Oatway/Getty Images | EPA-EFE/Kim Ludbrook | EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA| Wikimedia | Leila Dougan

Why have the ANC and its allies fallen apart or become a shadow of themselves, hardly able to put a coherent idea across? What has it been in post-apartheid South Africa, possibly having roots in earlier periods of the ANC’s history as well as the history of the country, that may have predisposed this first South African experience of democracy to fall apart?

The South African public may be somewhat bewildered by the results of the general election. This despite many having wanted, and polls predicting, that the ANC would be defeated or rather brought below 50% of the vote.

We are in uncharted territory for post-apartheid South Africa. But the result of this vote has been akin to what happens fairly frequently in Western Europe and sometimes bodes instability. But also fairly often, when partners have had experience working together or in such conditions of minority agreements, there can be stability that endures for some time.

What is creating bewilderment is that there is little local experience from which players may draw. Such minority coalitions or arrangements between the strongest and other parties are well-known in other parts of the world. This has led some to draw up checklists of what stipulations need to be included in any agreement if they want a coalition or other agreement to last.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections Dashboard

Often these agreements are too prescriptive or alternatively, overgeneralised. We cannot say that coalitions must share some qualities, but there needs to be sufficient agreement — not necessarily on ideology — to be able to work together. It seems that combinations which share less ideologically charged goals, relating to problems like infrastructure — roads, rail, water, power — may be more likely to succeed insofar as these are not specifically directed at one sector or population group as would be the case with a broader attempt to immediately address continuing inequality, where parties’ orientations and mandates may differ greatly.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Reality Check cometh: Multi-Party Charter fails to shoot to the moon

Often these lists of what is required and what cannot be done — if cast too rigidly — instead of helping to build working relationships can become obstacles in the way of stability and forming a government with shared responsibility. Where there is a basis for agreement or working together, it can be undermined if one or some are unwilling to hear and try to address one another’s concerns.

But we haven’t experienced this type of governing arrangement in post-apartheid South Africa, although there were some coalitions in earlier periods of apartheid or white minority rule. There was also a Government of National Unity (GNU) in the early post-apartheid period, at the onset of democracy.

Although the ANC defeat was widely forecast, no player has experience in this type of arrangement involving multiple parties that form part of the wider minority that will assemble in Parliament. Consequently, a wide range of minority concerns have been raised and there is still no agreement.

Collapse of ANC and other national liberation movement governments

This gradual collapse of ANC leadership in the organisation and government is part of a generational change which may or may not address the problems that the electorate has with the ANC. It is also part of the gradual collapse of national liberation movement (NLM) led governments throughout Africa, with the ANC having once been on the “list” of parties whose dedication and heroism was seen as exemplary to aspirant freedom fighters.

What is it that made a party with over 60% of the vote fall to 40% and be forced to engage with a range of parties, some of whom were previously outside of the category of political players with whom the ANC engaged?

This election result occurred within an environment where there is widespread disillusionment and lack of interest in a politics that has thus far done very little promised building to improve lives and a great deal of destruction or squandering of resources. The actual poll, including those eligible but unregistered voters, means that the Members of Parliament were elected by only 36% of the vote.

Why have the ANC and its allies fallen apart or become a shadow of themselves, hardly able to put a coherent idea across? What has it been in post-apartheid South Africa, possibly having roots in earlier periods of the ANC’s history as well as the history of the country, that may have predisposed this first South African experience of democracy to fall apart? I am aware that there are a range of scholars and commentators who have predicted this from experience elsewhere or believing in one or other supposed fatal flaw in national liberation movements that become governments.

Personal responsibility

When one has such discussions, those of us who were “there” need to ask what if any responsibility we bear for how things unfolded.

From 1990 to 1994, I was national head of political education in the ANC and earlier in the Transvaal UDF. That was an environment where we all learnt from one another or could learn if willing to be open. Certainly, there were bearers of specialist knowledge — there was much that could be learnt from organisational history or older people. Those who knew or could know more were a resource from which others could gather insights about the history of struggle and in different terrains.

At that time a lot of weight was placed on understanding history as essential to appreciating some of the problems we then encountered. In exile, especially where the organisation acted in its own name and not clandestinely (though casualties were experienced in the UK and France, for example), new recruits especially were inducted into organisational history and the organisation’s strategies and tactics.

The political Struggle against apartheid in its later phases had entailed organising in varying forms — illegal and underground work inside the country — which coexisted with the fragile and limited legal space in the UDF period.

In my experience, inside the country, these were groups operating legally on the margins of legality or combining legal and illegal activity. Acting legally did not always afford protection against security police attacks. Consequently, all opposing apartheid were taking risks with apparently no thought or promise of gain, although those who acted illegally were in the greatest danger.

What did we discuss among ourselves?

When we discussed political issues — meeting as a collective of legal and illegal comrades, what was communicated? My sense, now, is that in political training the emphasis was on the “line” to be followed, what type of strategies and tactics and with varying practices in the different sites where the Struggle was conducted.

I believed that many of these people were dedicated and willing to give up their lives for freedom. But if that is a correct reading, why did some of those who had once been brave later engage in fraud and become “role models” for a different, criminalised type of ANC/SACP/Cosatu?

I did not encounter dishonesty early on, but in a limited way early in the period of open legal struggle after the unbanning of the ANC, SACP and other illegal organisations. This was not large-scale fraud but limited acts like not returning funds that belonged to the organisations after performing one or other task. But these were a symptom of what would become a pattern of conduct.

Some of these practices had been learnt in exile, or in the UDF period by virtue of access to funding held by NGOs that were sympathetic to forces working for democracy. Others, in the period of legality and membership where membership was open to all, did not learn criminality in the organisation but brought it from their experiences outside the banned organisations.

In the training we conducted or the debates we facilitated, people studied the Freedom Charter, the ANC’s strategy and tactics adopted at Morogoro in 1969 and other key documents, especially in the SACP and Cosatu where there was a lot of reading on the road to socialism, e.g. the SACP’s 1989 document on the eve of negotiations, The Path to power. and SACP, 1989, The Path to Power: Programme of the South African Communist Party adopted at the 7th Congress, 1989 (in African Communist, 118, third quarter, 72-126).

Deriving from these discussions, “selling out” was often equated with following a particular set of ideas or actions that would obstruct or advance the road to socialism, or visions of unity that would include or exclude particular categories of people.

There were endless debates among formally recruited people and some who belonged to leftist groups outside the fold with less support than what became the ANC/SACP/Cosatu tripartite alliance. These were matters of the intellect, though most were not trained in universities. There was not a great deal of structured discussion about conduct in relation to comrades (unless facing disciplinary action or within detention, which tended to be informally initiated).

Chris Hani made great efforts to probe whether cadres were ready for the dangers they faced and wanted them to understand that they would not face negative reactions if they said they were not yet ready. More generally, my sense is that many comrades shied away from such personal reflections. (Interview with MK soldier Dipuo Mvelase on Chris Hani, 1993, available on request).

There was not a great deal of discussion about ethics — how to engage people in a way that entailed listening as well as talking, that included communicating one’s political understanding and seeing how best to bridge gaps between comrades with different perspectives — not necessarily to erase differences. Sometimes there was debate and sometimes it was more hierarchical, with senior comrades communicating “the line”. There was often a well-organised system of training when comrades were held in prisons — in longer or shorter periods of detention and in serving sentences.

Preparing for being arrested

Some of these discussions entailed advice to people who might be arrested and tortured. My sense is that how well one understood or how many revolutionary texts one had read were not in themselves preparation for the dreaded day of arrest.

To be prepared, one had to try to answer very basic questions, asking ourselves why we were involved in the first place, what made us take that first step and why to never retreat or what to do when one’s courage seemed to falter. (See discussion in Raymond Suttner, Inside Apartheid’s Prison, 2 ed, 2017).

We also needed — ideally — to relate the commitment to common and sometimes very different experiences and environments from which we derived. In my experience, there was insufficient probing of these sometimes personal questions instead of trying to grasp what made particular individuals join or leave the Struggle, as in desertion or changing sides and assisting “the enemy”. There may have been insufficient work on understanding their individual strengths and weaknesses and addressing the latter where able to do so.

What is it in these situations that has created conditions or enabled conditions which create a dynamic of instability and failure to use the resources of the country and of the fiscus in a way that benefits all the inhabitants of South Africa, as was envisaged in the Constitution, and other founding statements and documents of the early days of the “New South Africa”?

Nothing inevitable

It should be noted that there was nothing inevitable in the collapse of ANC rule nor was there something in ANC history that made it likely that it would fall as a government without any preparations for “the morning after”.

What followed is disarray wherever one looks. The ANC and DA may be two parties with a relatively higher respect for constitutionalism than the MK party and EFF. But it may be that the IFP and some of the other smaller parties may also tend to respect constitutionalism.

The debate that is going on over who will be chosen as a coalition partner is an indication of the anxiety that people have now that what many hoped for has happened and the ANC is no longer the undisputed leader in the political arena. It alters a well-established terrain of struggle or “conjuncture”. It will take time to work out what the implications and possibilities are.

If we look at what preceded 1994, there may be certain warning signals of the ANC acting in a manner that ought to have alerted to dangers, although there are also signals in more than one direction. I will return to this in the next article. DM

This article originally appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner. His current writings cover mainly contemporary politics, history, and social questions.


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