When it was a liberation movement, and through its history of nearly 107 years, the ANC lived through periods of a surge of nationalism. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the ANC, like other political organisations at the time, took on a strong nationalist outlook.
As the nationalist movements were on the rise in Europe and even in some parts of Africa, youths such as Albertina Sisulu, Anton Lembede and Walter Sisulu pursued an ANC Youth League that responded, appropriately at the time, to the calls for nationalist sentiment.
Heavily influenced by Pixley kaIsaka Seme, Lembede would also later be exposed to Afrikaner nationalism. His studies, as a Cartesian philosopher thus invariably integrating the existential question of the African, together with the exposure to Afrikaner nationalism and Seme, enabled a mosaic of African nationalism to form in the young leader’s mind.
The question of nationalism, whether African or otherwise, ultimately led to the sharp disagreements between the Youth League members and the Communist Party of South Africa at the time. The tension between the communists and the nationalists, within the mass democratic movement, is historic and continues even to this day. Yet this is another clear example of this “broad church”.
However, the nationalists of the 1940s soon gave way to the Freedom Charter in the late 1950s. In fact, the nationalist sentiment with the Youth League continued to be so strong that some of these young nationalists, led by Mangaliso Sobukwe and Peter Mda, went on to break away from the ANC and form the Pan Africanist Congress. Mystery remains whether the young Lembede, who died tragically at 33 in 1947, would have remained in the ANC or moved to the PAC.
Thus the genesis of the broad-church movement began well at Kliptown, with the Congress of the People, and the formation of the Congress Alliance. The racial broad church would formally be adopted at Morogoro. By this time, the organisation had become a tapestry of different members with different backgrounds overcoming class, creed, race and gender and exemplified the notion, extolled by the Freedom Charter, that South Africa belonged to all who lived in it. Thus mirroring South African society.
Yet by the 1960s, the waves of global ideology had shifted towards either the two blocs who confronted each other through the Cold War or a more mixed approach as found in Scandinavia. During the peak of the Cold War, as Africans had thrown off the chains of colonialism, the nationalism of the prewar and postwar years had given way to internationalism. As a result, the ANC once again mobilised to move with the times.
In the current nationalist milieu, though, the ANC must ask itself tough questions about these issues, given the challenges that our country faces and especially given that poverty, inequality and unemployment have a black and African face. That some organisations are populist and that their support base is almost exclusively African and black is also not surprising.
At more or less the same time that the ANC came to power in South Africa, the Labour Party in the UK, after being out of power for nearly two decades, came into power. The leadership of that party had to work hard to ensure that the party became “electable” by moving it from the far left to centre-left. In fact, by the time Blair and then Brown left government, they were easily more centre-right than centre-left. Centre politics was then in vogue. Today it is not. However, one of the key messages in the 1997 Labour campaign was the creation of a pact between the wealthy and middle class with the working class.
Labour knew that the only way it could possibly win over the British people was if it convinced the middle class, which had grown substantially under Margaret Thatcher, but which took a knock under John Major, to “look out” and work with the working class in order to fight poverty and, for example, the challenges of the causes of crime.
Labour, though still socialist in orientation, simply had to become a broad church. But it would be foolish to omit that by the mid-naughties and the onslaught of the global economic recession that many people in the UK, especially the poor and marginalised, felt isolated because of Labour’s policies. Hence, today we have Corbynism.
Another example of this broad church is certainly found in the People’s Republic of China. There are five stars on the Chinese flag. The largest represents the Communist Party of China while the other four represent the four classes which Chairman Mao and later Deng Xiaoping found pivotal in the pursuit of the New China founded in 1949. The peasants, the proletariat, the petty bourgeois and the capitalist class simply had to work together, the Party insisted, in order for China to be developed into a modern and relatively prosperous society.
Though Chairman Mao always insisted on the primacy of the peasants during the reforms, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, emphasis was put on expanding and stimulating the other classes as well. All four classes were accentuated and all four classes were made to feel “at home” within the People’s Republic and even within the Party itself. A broad church, no doubt.
The Communist Party of China has long been an example for the ANC, especially its developmental model. In one of the discussion documents released before the 2012 Mangaung 53rd National Conference it said that China’s economic developmental trajectory remains a leading example of the triumph of humanity over adversity. The document went on to insist that the exemplary role of the collective leadership of the CPC in this regard should be a guiding lodestar of our own struggle here in South Africa.
Political scholars and political pundits without question will ask: Is it better for a party to ride the nationalist wave at a time of the upsurge in global nationalism or must it remain steadfast and insist on a broad church and form a social pact between various strata in a society? In other words, can the ANC find the middle ground between what its former president, Thabo Mbeki, exhorts in his foundation’s pamphlet on the land question, and the populist rhetoric found by some on the left?
With a history of more than 100 years and with the experience of governance for a quarter of a century, the ANC has the hindsight and wisdom to find that middle ground. As it found the middle ground during the tide of nationalist movements sweeping across Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, so too it will find the middle ground with these current challenges and work with all to ensure that South Africa does belong to all who live in it. DM
Jessie Duarte is Deputy Secretary-General of the ANC.