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A system in need of reform: The stage is set for a showdown between the ANC’s ‘inzile’ and exile political cultures


Born in Johannesburg in 1941, Paul Trewhela worked in underground journalism with Ruth First and edited the underground journal of MK, ‘Freedom Fighter’, during the Rivonia Trial. He was a political prisoner in Pretoria and the Johannesburg Fort as a member of the Communist Party in 1964-1967, separating from the SACP while in prison. In exile in Britain, he was co-editor with the late Baruch Hirson of ‘Searchlight South Africa’, banned in South Africa.

The ANC’s sub-Soviet political model has passed political authority exclusively to ANC party headquarters as the real government, unaccountable to voters. Not surprisingly, in the post-Soviet era, this passed licence to the ANC political elite after its return to capitalist South Africa for extreme corruption. Who was to stop them?

Inziles or exiles? This is certainly a major theme in the history of South Africa and the ANC of the post-Sharpeville period, which comes to mind when reading Carien du Plessis’ acute investigation, “The aftermath: ANC set to take a broom to its own house when party leaders meet on  Monday” (Daily Maverick, 21 July 2021).

The basic reality is clear: when we talk about “exiles” in relation to the ANC, we are talking primarily of a political culture dominated by the South African Communist Party. It’s important to examine the differences here.

When the ANC was founded in 1912 — as far as I know, the first such organisation in Africa — its founding ethos was Christian, anti-tribalist (in that sense, national) and looked directly to the Westminster and US electoral systems as the model for a future democratic South African Parliament. Basically, the founders of the ANC wanted the current South African parliamentary system (then in its second year) to be extended to black people on the same basis — ie to all black adult males, given that adult female suffrage did not yet exist in the UK, the US or South Africa.

The Communist Party of South Africa was founded by whites in 1921, nine years after the ANC. By 1929 it had its first black secretary-general, Albert Nzula. As explained in an article about Nzula in the SACP journal, The African Communist (No 65), published in London in 1976, this radical change took place 100% under the direction of the Soviet regime, then headed by Stalin, working with Bukharin. As the article explains:

“Nzula’s entry into the Communist Party took place at a time when the slogan of an Independent Native Republic was being fiercely debated in Party circles. The slogan had been adopted after lengthy discussion both in South Africa and overseas, at the 6th congress of the Communist International held in Moscow in 1928, and was later to be formally incorporated in the new programme of the Communist Party of South Africa at its conference held at the Inchcape Hall, Johannesburg, from December 28, 1928, to January 1, 1929. The full slogan read: ‘An independent native South African republic as a stage towards a workers’ and peasants’ republic, with full equal rights for all races, black, coloured and white’.

“This is not the place to set out again the arguments for and against the slogan. Suffice to say the slogan speeded up the decisive shift in Communist Party orientation from the ranks of the white workers and intellectuals to those of the millions of unorganised black workers and peasants, the leading elements of which began to enter its ranks in increasing numbers. Among those who joined the Party in these years were many black intellectuals and militants rebelling against white domination and seeking a political philosophy and an organisation to implement it…” (p 92)

By comparison, the non-racial Liberal Party was only founded in May 1953, adopted a programme for universal adult suffrage as late as mid-1960 following the Sharpeville massacre the previous March, and dissolved itself permanently in mid-1968, under pressure from the apartheid regime.

It is not hard to see why the ANC shifted decisively between 1953 and 1960 from a UK-type model of parliamentary democracy, with MPs elected by voters as individuals under their own names in local constituencies, to a Soviet despotic mentality, with repression of any member regarded as a “dissident” and imprisoned in a Soviet-model gulag at Quatro during the Cold War in Angola.

This was the dominant culture of “exile” — a political culture which the ANC transferred successfully to post-apartheid South Africa through the new electoral law, in which the electorate votes in elections to the National Assembly and provincial councils, and in half of all municipal seats, solely for a political party… and not any individual candidate. No MP or provincial councillor has been dependent on voters over the past 27 years.

Inevitably, this sub-Soviet political model passed political authority exclusively to ANC party headquarters as the real government, unaccountable to voters.

Not surprisingly, in the post-Soviet era, this passed licence to the ANC political elite after its return to capitalist South Africa for extreme corruption. Who was to stop them?

In my view, it is this semi-Soviet system of a government unaccountable to voters which has now exposed itself as a catastrophe for the huge majority of the people in the present crisis.

The reality is that following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, the ANC went through a huge ideological and philosophical change through its fusion with the SACP in the creation of Umkhonto weSizwe, which largely (but not entirely) excluded its Christian philosophical origin and the Westminster/US political culture of rule of law and accountability to voters. Those seeking electoral reform — whether in the shape of the Slabbert Commission/Electoral Task Team report of 2003 or not — are in fact seeking a return by the ANC to its philosophical and moral foundation.

It remains to be seen whether the ANC and the people of South Africa can now go through a process of fundamental political reform in a return to the ANC’s founding vision of parliamentary democracy on the basis of MPs and provincial councillors dependent on voters for election to office as representatives of the people.

The advocates of reform at present do not have a common platform, which needs intensive work to bring into being. But given South Africa’s powerful history of politics, I don’t see why it should not be possible. The present conditions — set in place by the returning exile leaders — are not in the interest of either the current black middle class or the mass of the poor and unemployed, or of workers. It is only a very small minority who benefit. That should not be difficult to explain to the population at large.

Alliance with the SACP gave the ANC by far the best option for making a military challenge to the apartheid regime, and for gaining the respect of the majority of black society. A fundamental change to representative democracy is now essential.

In the present harsh conflict within the ANC, it’s a great strength of Cyril Ramaphosa in his defence of rule of law that he was never in exile. And unlike Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, he was also never a member of the SACP. DM


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All Comments 9

  • This is a very insightful article. The historical and current influence of the SACP in the evolution of the new SA needs critical examination. For example, the perceived influence of the KGB on the ANC (reds under the bed and all that) made it that much harder for White voters in the old SA to trust, let alone support, the ANC. The Nats capitalised on those legitimate fears. In that sense, the ANC’s choice to align with the USSR delayed the demise of apartheid. It is no co-incidence that real possibilities for change only opened up when the USSR collapsed. Currently, as the article rightfully points out, ANC’s reluctance to oppose the influence of SACP ideologues in its structures has been delayed prosperity in SA at a variety of levels. Notions such as White Monopoly Capital and Radical Economic Transformation are embedded in an underlying Marxian philosophy that regards capital and labour as unavoidably in conflict. These matters are not adequately examined by commentators.

  • All true enough. But it is worth reflecting that if MPs had been directly elected in 1994 the ANC would have won almost every seat and had total power. The smaller parties would not have had enough votes in individual constituencies to get any representation at all. The Slabbert/Shubane proposals suggested a blended system to deal with this. Now direct representation is the best option, and in local government particularly there should be no proportional representation. It would allow for more local community groups to be represented.

  • Why is there still an SACP in South Africa? It hardly exists anywhere else in as much of its original form as it does here.

    I look forward to no government worker EVER using the word word “comrade” in an official speech unless talking about the marathon.

    • I endorse your comment on use of the term ‘comrade’. My hackles rise every time I hear it – as recently as yesterday. The Soviet era is long dead yet the ANC continues to refer to fellow party members using this archaic moniker. They perpetuate the destructive policy of cadre deployment, and party loyalty overrides loyalty to the nation.

  • Very informative article thank you. History of the ANC polity is new territory for me and so i had to read this article four times. In that context, my first comment would be that there seems to be a flip-flopping OR lack of continuity OR conflict of philosophical basis for governance in SA, and the roots of that clearly understandable from the struggle against apartheid with all the institutional aspects that went along with that – education, rule of law, separation etc. It would seem to me that the struggle by the populist leaders are rejecting the Westminster model adopted by the original movement in favour of an “African Dawn” Gadaffi style dictatorship. Its a tricky situation because in the hands of benevolence, this could protect our continent resources against a next wave of colonial extortion (US,China). However, we dont see an ounce of benevolence in Zuma or Malema.

    On the other hand, if South Africa’ s chaos brings about stability in the neo-liberal westminster model frame, will we be stuck with always being the developing country begging to play with the big economies?

    Or, is what you are implying is that CR may be that benevolent leader to take us to economic freedom, as anon-exile?

  • Very helpful perspective. We would like to think that you and your fellow selfless South Africans who are legitimised by your struggle credentials, will take a delegation to the CR/the NEC in support of the radical reform required to give this country a real future.

  • Very illuminating, thank you. I would be interested in your assessment of the current process to amend the Constitution to allow for independent candidates to contest directly.

  • Dear Commentators,
    Thank you very much for all your thoughts here. On the ruling of the Constitutional Court requiring individual candidates to be allowed to stand in elections, following the application by the New Nation group, I think this needs much more active discussion and debate, especially on the proposal of the Electoral Task Team for large multi-member constituencies in the great majority of seats. A reform movement should welcome contributions from as wide a range of contributors as possible in online discussions and in newspapers. When Covid is finally put in check, hopefully this can lead to proper meetings and formation of a broad elected reform movement similar to the UDF in the 1980s.
    In the meantime, I urge everyone interested to read Luthando Dyasop’s autobiography, Out of Quatro: From Exile to Exoneration – due for sale on 27 July – to follow how the pro-democracy movement of the 1970s generation in MK and ANC in exile was brutally crushed, prohibiting members from electing those they chose to represent them. A webinar will be arranged by Exclusive Books about Dyasop’s book in September. It’s a deeply relevant book in the present time.

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