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What is to be done? Burning questions for the ANC in this time of crisis


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

The question of what can be done is on the minds of the most responsible people in South Africa, especially in the aftermath of the mass looting and destruction that swept through two of our provinces in July.

We must find lasting solutions to the structural challenges we face, especially with our economy and the owners of the means of production. In other words, the national bourgeoisie. We have a fairly good understanding of the South African problématique, but it would be remiss of me not to mention that many of my fellow (particularly white) South Africans also deny or don’t want to know about the black man’s historical injustice over the centuries here at home.

Allow me to contextualise the anger, frustration and bitterness we observed two weeks ago in KZN and Gauteng. A brief, but concise history will tell us that race was not always considered a biological or genetic category. So, how did we come to understand it that way today? Well, it started with the colonial period and, in particular, we see the shift in the idea of race in the 17th and 18th centuries. The answer to this question is firmly rooted in two things: the rise of global capitalism that was backed by slavery and colonialism and a period of theorisation in Europe known as the Enlightenment.

With the expansion of this system of accumulation (capitalism), there was understandably some resistance, even from Europeans. So, to continue justifying slavery, we start to see the pseudo-science of “race” emerge that connected physical features, behaviour and legal rights, right around the 18th century when colonial use of slaves was expanding. So as a result of a desire to perpetuate systems of exploitation, more and more distinctions were made about the supposed differences between races, primarily the differences of black people from their white counterparts.

This evolution of race became more concretised after social structures of slavery were in place and not before, and was solidified by the Enlightenment. So, how did the Enlightenment contribute to this matter and affect definitions of race? This period was primarily that of European thought and ideological development that saw the emergence of some key concepts.

First, there was a push in scientific communities to categorise the natural world using “reason” and creating elaborate hierarchical systems that emphasised the similarities between different species and subgroups and the inherent differences, among others. And race was fitted into this same mould. As European theorists looked to classify the world into “scientific” groupings, physical markers that were already established social norms through enslavement and genocide were ways that they sought to “prove” that this was the “natural” order and not a social construction.

In short, the Enlightenment formulation of history also played a crucial role in the development of social ideologies of race. Kant, Hegel and other philosophers of their day claimed that certain racial groups stood outside of history or had no history, and this included all groups that they considered non-white or outside of European ideals of modernity. This meant that groups that were devoid of history and culture were inherently less valuable and therefore subordinate to other races.

Similarly, the rise of capitalism and colonial expansion suggests that at its very core we are dealing with a class society in which the bourgeoisie is the dominant class at the expense of the working class. The arrival at the Cape of the Dutch East India Company in 1652 represented the embryo of the emergence of class society with the bourgeoisie in its infancy.

Karl Marx wrote:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in the mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.”

He continues:

“The transformation of the individualised and scattered means of production into socially concentrated ones, of the pigmy property of the many into the huge property of the few, the expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil, from the means of subsistence and from the means of labour, this fearful and painful expropriation of the mass of the people forms the prelude to the history of capital. It comprises a series — of forcible methods… The expropriation of the immediate producers was accomplished with merciless vandalism, and under the stimulus of passions the most infamous, the most sordid, the pettiest, the most meanly odious.”

No one dare deny that Marx might as well have been speaking of South Africa with the discovery of gold and the rush that ensued thereafter. White Europeans’ lust for wealth and profit through merciless vandalism and under the stimulus of passions are the most infamous, the most sordid, the pettiest, and the most meanly odious.

Soon after the arrival of the Dutch, we saw the arrival of the first group of slaves in the Cape Colony.

It’s important that we read the full speech, “An Historical Injustice” delivered in Ottawa, Canada, in 1979 by Thabo Mbeki.

Mbeki introduces his audience to Calvin’s Doctrine and how religion was used and abused by the Afrikaners to justify their wayward racist acts against the black population. Looking at their European counterparts, they observed first hand “why Europe carried out this early accumulation at home and abroad with such merciless enthusiasm and passion — because the process assured men of property stupendous and immediate profit. Brought up in this European hothouse of rapine, the settlers in South Africa could not but continue this process in their colony.

“The result was that when England abolished the slave trade in 1834, nearly two centuries after the arrival of the first batch of slaves, the descendants of the original colonists rebelled against this decision. Judging themselves too weak to reimpose slavery by arms, the Boers resolved to take themselves out of the area of British jurisdiction. Thus began the so-called Great Trek of the Boers into the interior of our country.”

Furthermore, “we see therefore that the methods and practices of primitive accumulation which represented a transitional phase in the development of capital in Europe, assumed permanence in the South African economy and lifestyle of the Boers. They acquired a fixity characteristic of feudal society, legitimised by the use of force and sanctified by a supposedly Calvinist Christianity.

“The South African settlers of 1652 had themselves been the expropriated of Europe.

“But, as in America, here in Canada, in Australia and elsewhere, after a little while they were able to re-establish themselves as independent producers, acquiring land in the manner we have described, on the basis of the expropriation of our people, despite the most fierce resistance of the indigenous people.

“It was exactly the blissful regaining of their status as masters of their own house, their re-emergence as independent producers, that froze the Boer community at a particular moment of historic time and thereby guaranteed their regression.

“Thrown up by the birth of a higher social system, they reverted precisely to that natural economy which capital was so vengefully breaking up. But capital had already taught them that in the pursuit of a better life, everything, including murder, was permissible and legitimate.”

The British involvement in all of this comes to the fore in 1910 with the social contract between them and the Boers, in which the Briton undertook to help ease the Boer out of the Dark Ages while promising to respect his traditions.

“Between them, Boer and Briton agreed that they would share political power and, finally, that the indigenous African population would not be party to this contract but would be kept under the domination and at the disposal of the signatories, to be used by them in whatever manner they saw fit.”

And though slavery was outlawed and you could no longer bring slaves into the Cape Colony, the British authorities introduced the Vagrancy Act directed specifically at the Khoi people. Under this law, all Khoi people not in the employ of a white person were declared vagrants. Vagrancy was made an offence. To prove that one was not a vagrant one had to produce a pass. To get the pass, you had to enter into a written labour contract with a white person. This measure was introduced to meet the labour shortfall created by the non-importation of slaves. This sounds awfully familiar, does it not?

Mbeki continues: “In the end, it was the British armies which defeated the African people, the British who drove us off our lands, broke up the natural economy and social systems of the indigenous people. It was they who imposed taxes on the African peasants and, starting with the Masters and Servants Act of 1856, laid down the labour laws which govern the black worker in South Africa today.

“The historic compromise between the British bourgeoisie and the Boer peasantry represented hence not an historical aberration but the continued pursuit of maximum profit in conditions of absolute freedom for capital to pursue its inherent purposes.”

In other words, better put, to pursue and protect white privilege.

In Britain on the other hand, the authorities knew that a compromise had to be struck between their working class and the political elite. In return for recognising private property rights as the cornerstone of capitalism, they were given political freedom which they could exercise through a vote every five years or so. This compromise was not extended to the black workers on the southern tip of Africa, for obvious reasons.

Mbeki goes on to quote the white South African member of Parliament GF Froneman who “translated it into the concrete when he said ‘(within white society, Africans) are only supplying a commodity, the commodity of labour… It is labour we are importing (into the white areas) and not labourers as individuals which can and must be quantified in a profit and loss account to the point of the very ‘negation of life itself’.

“In that very real sense,” Mbeki said, “the African, therefore, belongs to the category of commodities to an equal extent as gold, diamonds and any other commodity you care to mention, to be bought and sold. Hoarded and even destroyed depending exclusively on the state of the market. That rationality demands that to ensure maximum profit, that portion of the national wealth which accrues to the black people to consume should be kept at the barest minimum.”

Mbeki goes on to state that:

“The capitalist class, to whom everything has a cash value, has never considered moral incentives as very dependable. As part of the arrangement, it, therefore, decided that material incentives must play a prominent part. It consequently bought out the whole white population. It offered a price to the white workers and the Afrikaner farmers in exchange for an undertaking that they would shed their blood in defence of capital. Both worker and farmer, like Faustus, took the devil’s offering and, like Faustus, they will have to pay on the appointed day.”

Mbeki continues: “In the physical world, black might indeed be the opposite of white. But in the world of social systems, social theory and practice have as much to do with skin pigmentation as has the birth of children with the stork. To connect the two is to invent a fable with the conscious or unconscious purpose of hiding reality.”

Mbeki concludes with:

“We must, by liberating ourselves, make our own history. Such a process by its very nature imposes on the activist the necessity to plan and therefore requires the ability to measure cause and effect, the necessity to strike in correct directions and hence the requirement to distinguish between essence and phenomenon; the necessity to move millions of people as one man to actual victory and consequently the development of the skill of combining the necessary and the possible.”

These are the facts and they are undeniable. This is our history. These are the truths and they remain our memories. Which part of these will you have us deny?

All to preserve and protect what? White privilege!

Now that we have a clear historical understanding of the South African problématique, let’s add to our woes by also reflecting on additional challenges post-1994 in the democratic era.

Among the major issues that have been thrown up by developments in the past few years and ongoing discourse in society are the following:

  • It requires active leadership by a capable developmental state;
  • The National Development Plan calls for an active citizenry; but most critically that the various social partners should work together to realise Vision 2030. What is required in this regard is a social compact of common and varied programmes to realise the objectives of the NDP;
  • Social compacting should be founded on an appreciation that there is serious intent on the part of the state and the business community to deal with the root causes of poverty and inequality;
  • Given the paucity of resources available in the fiscus — in this current period of low economic growth and a huge budget deficit — it will be necessary to ensure proper prioritisation and sequencing of state interventions. It is also necessary to find creative ways of drawing in the private sector in realising some of the objectives such as urgent infrastructure projects; and
  • As has been emphasised repeatedly, most of the challenges with regard to the intensification of the programme to provide basic social services do not derive from the availability of resources.

Allow me to add that the imperatives for the continuation of the NDP are:

  • Disparities continue to assume a fundamentally racial character;
  • The continuation of widespread racism, both institutionally and privately, businesses, education sector etc;
  • Land ownership patterns remain skewed along racial lines;
  • The economy remains in white hands, with few exceptions; and
  • Gender inequity continues and maintains a primarily racial element.

A few additional points illustrate the magnitude of the challenge:

  • Factionalism and “money politics” were identified as some of the critical weaknesses sapping the very revolutionary core of the governing party, the ANC. While some detailed issues may have been attended to, there hasn’t been a systematic campaign to root this out. Indeed, it is these and other weaknesses that have resulted in disruptions of some ANC meetings, worsened the ructions in the Leagues and presented the spectre of violent conflict among tripartite alliance partners;
  • National Conference was resolute that the ANC could “no longer allow prolonged processes that damage its integrity”; and therefore, needed firmly to deal with “public officials, leaders and members… who face damaging allegations of improper conduct”; and
  • Unremitting efforts have been put into preventing a split within, and thus the fundamental weakening of, the progressive trade union movement, represented by Cosatu.

So, now that we have a comprehensive understanding of our problématique both historically and contemporarily, why do the youth of South Africa today still state with such confidence that Nelson Mandela sold them out and that their destiny remains embedded in unemployment, inequality and poverty? Why, you might ask, is there still so much anger, frustration and bitterness? Well, this is the nub, isn’t it?

What did we not do right post-1994? It is so easy for white SA to say it’s the fault of the black government and the ensuing corruption these past few years, but alas, this is surely tantamount to denying the real problématique and historical injustice?

I surmise that:

We don’t have the right to decide our own fate, we never did. We must first win back that right to decide our fate. Since 1994, through our negotiated settlement, others have exercised this right, not us. Investors, rating agencies and/or the ominous international community have been deciding our fate.

Truth be told, the ANC and SACP in their respective current forms are not geared towards such radical revolutionary decisions. The SACP in particular remains comfortably in the armpit of the ANC, not geared towards a socialist revolution at all.

And last, but most critical:

We need to settle the score with our national bourgeoisie. Come to terms on how to define our own National Democratic Revolution and economic path. We have failed to do so since 1994 to the current period.

There are no easy answers to these, but one thing I’m emphatically sure of — inaction on all our parts, denying our historical injustice, or continuing the talk that government must resolve these problems and not us collectively, will result in catastrophe for us all. DM


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  • We need to settle the score with our national bourgeoisie. Really! Very long-winded!
    This is a whitewash of the ANC’s responsibilities, you make them out to be helpless victims. Ethics in the ANC is a lost cause and you Oscar, were part of this failure. Trying to blame everyone else for this simple failure to hold people responsible and accountable is subterfuge. If they were held responsible and accountable there would be more money to go around and the country would be achieving its potential.
    Are you part of the Bheki Cele and Sihle Zikalala effort to point away from what we should be examining and questioning?

  • Oscar, you occasionally write some insightful pieces, but when it comes to the ANC you have a massive blind spot.

    “Since 1994, through our negotiated settlement, others have exercised this right, not us.”

    You mean members of the ANC, as the majority who claimed to be representatives of the people and were voted into power time and time again?

    Unlike some other members of the ANC who clearly recognize the role the ANC has played since 2007 in dragging us down, you seem to rarely look inward towards the failings of the party and recognize this one simple fact – the ANC of today is no longer what the ANC was prior to the Polokwane conference. The ANC has had a massive role in failing to continue the successes of the Mandela/Mbeki administrations – this point is not up for debate. It is a well-known fact that we experienced great recovery during this period that helped give rise to the millions of black people who now make up the middle class. Failure to recognize this would mean you are living in some alternate reality to the rest of us.

    • “We need to settle the score with our national bourgeoisie. Come to terms on how to define our own National Democratic Revolution and economic path. We have failed to do so since 1994 to the current period.”

      The national bourgeoisie? Is that code for the political elite/ANC members who have robbed us blind?

      But it’s clear that you’re Communist/Socialist leanings are what are guiding you. Despite the facts that every Communist country has failed, and that the countries that claim to be Socialist using socialist programs on a capitalist economy, you seem to think that this Soviet-era plan will help this country.

      This country needs less state intervention. In fact, the state needs to get out of the way so people can do what they need to do to get this country back on their feet. It’s this obsession with this “state central” (and therefore ANC central) program that has South Africa on its knees.

      Accept the facts Oscar, everything that the ANC has had control of is dying, including the ANC itself. But ordinary citizens have a chance to save this country, if only the ANC will get out of the way.

  • 100% correct Rowan. It is up to the majority of SA citizens who desire peace, stability and prosperity for all to stand together and overcome the thugs that are hell bent on destroying everything so they can acquire as much as possible for themselves. They have used and abused the system since Polokwane by infiltrating and subverting wherever possible using the cadres as pawns who have followed like sheep. We can only start from the bottom up, taking control from ward level to council level and so on as independent thinking SA citizens and outnumber the political bourgeoise until they become irrelevant.

  • Oscar, even though a lot of the historical facts you cite are correct, but they cannot justify the recent insurrection. With regard to the ANC you are totally blind. Even leading ANC members are prepared to admit that these riots are solely due to the ANC incompetence and thuggery. Let’s just take the educational system as an example. For the masses, it is a crime against humanity. Raising children without any hope is a recipe of disasters. If these youngster start expressing their anger, the country is doomed. Pair this with the fact that not a single instigator, I am talking about the politically connected, have been arrested is another proof that your arguments don’t hold any water.

  • Who has been responsible for the plunder and destruction of so many of our institutions in much more than “the last few years”?Who has had the overwhelming political power to steer the country in the right direction? Who has incapacitated the state to such a degree that it has not been able to protect its citizens or offer them a better life? It has been the ANC , not least through its designated leadership.

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