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The ANC has always been in an arriviste state of mind

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

You’ll be hearing a lot about the ANC’s need to return to its roots. I see a straight line from its intellectual founders to its high-living leaders today.

The African National Congress is a pro-poor party with a huge appetite for the fat of the land. Its president Jacob Zuma sees no irony in visiting destitute townships on the morning of 7 January to lambaste underperforming municipal councillors during the day – and to promise service delivery – and partying up a storm in the presence of the Africa’s political elite upper crust on the very same night. Certainly, Zuma and other ANC leaders would have spent no sleepless nights over the extravagance of the party’s 100th anniversary Bloemfontein bun-fight.

Such contrasts lend themselves to tut-tutting, and there has been plenty of it.

“With the unemployment rate sitting at 25%, 70% of Gauteng’s Grade 3 learners being illiterate, and an estimated 5.6-million people living with HIV and Aids, one would imagine that a lasting legacy would be the ANC building 100 schools, 100 clinics, 100 tertiary education institutions, 100 resource centres, 100 factories, 100 counselling centres, 100 roads,” wrote Qhakaza Mthembu in City Press. “Instead, we’ll spend more than R100-million celebrating an organisation that seems to care only about its pockets – and we’ll party like we don’t have to work tomorrow (and with a youth unemployment rate of 51%, chances are most won’t have work the next day, and the day after …)”

Indeed, it was not hard to share her sentiments as I took a short walk through Bloemfontein’s nightclub district on Saturday night. The streets were packed with the very best that Germany can offer in luxury sedans, and in the clubs themselves, the young comrades were packed in just as tightly, dropping appalling amounts of money on alcohol. Just outside 2nd Avenue, a small gaggle of homeless children (the eldest one couldn’t have been older than 14) were sniffing glue, stopping only to fight over the privilege of beckoning yet another BMW M3 out onto the street in exchange for a coin.

Every few minutes, the streets would rumble as a small gang of motorcyclists passed through, scattering the homeless in their wake.

A few streets away, the police had cordoned off the area leading up to the Waaihoek Wesleyan Church, the ANC’s birthplace. Only the accredited could get in (thanks to a monumental bungle by the ANC’s “accreditors”, I only got my tag on Sunday morning), and those who couldn’t, stood on the street outside the gate, hoping for a glimpse of Zuma when his cavalcade would speed in. I too stood on the edge of the small crowd for a few minutes, till Twitter informed me that Zuma would be late. Just a few paces behind me, the dark shapes of sleeping street beggars lay scattered on the pavement.

I didn’t grimace. The ANC of that day, the one in the townships, the one handing out grants – that’s the ANC trying to be something else. At its very heart, the ANC has been, and always will be, a party that is middle-class and arriviste in its tastes.

It is not difficult to trace a line from the founders of the party to the partying young lions. I don’t think the poor of South Africa today will find much in common with the small group of intellectuals, writers and religious scholars who gathered 100 years ago to draft what would become the ANC.

The leadership of the ANC (save perhaps for the post-Polokwane group) has been extracted from the well-off, while the majority of its ground support is anything but. This was true even during its most extreme-left days.

Sol Plaatjie, the ANC’s first general secretary, was a worldly man of wide and deep scholarship. Is it so hard to imagine that his descendants would sip the fruit of his labour in the most decadent way possible?

If anything, the way the ANC chose to celebrate its 100th birthday says it is a pro-poor party by necessity. At its very heart, this is a party for, and by, the upwardly mobile people.

Which is not to say it has made no effort to lessen the burden of the poor, of course. Even though the wealth gap has grown since 1993, this is mainly a function of simple economics – as more blacks move into the upper deciles, companies competing over a small pool of candidates have to pay higher-than-market rates. But the poor are definitely better off today than they were in 1993. Those living on less than the R550-a-month poverty line have lessened as a percentage of the population. The breadth and depth of poverty is lesser too. Up to 14-million free houses have been built since 1994. More poor people now have water and electricity than ever before. These are victories the ANC-led government can claim. In other respects, especially education and health, the government is still failing the poor.

Over the next century, the ANC’s pro-poor rhetoric will lessen as the pool of poor people lessens (assuming we do nothing to seriously imperil the economy, of course, comrades). Do you think there will be space for anti-capitalist ranters when a sizeable portion of the ANC is middle-class and owns capital? The fact that senior ANC leaders acknowledge that corruption is the party’s biggest challenge in the years to come only serves to highlight my point. This party has a serious appetite for capital.

Personally, I don’t mind the ANC’s orgy of decadence, but I will complain bitterly if it’s funded from public money. I’m not going to join the line of commentators calling for the ANC to return to its, presumably, poor roots. This movement has always had a taste for la dolce vita. The 100 years of selfless struggle weren’t so that we would all be on bread and water, right? DM

Read more:

  • ANC parties in Bloemfontein in News24;
  • Graft biggest threat to ANC in City Press.

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