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Let’s be brutally honest – the ANC of yesteryear with its ethical and principled leaders is no more


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.

Can we yet again rely on the youth element to step up and challenge these geriatrics, all of whom are still jostling for positions when in fact they should all be going into retirement, the whole lot of them?

The ANC is no longer fit for purpose. Its historic mission and the main reason for its formation in 1912 has always been to attain one person, one vote (universal suffrage), establish Houses of Parliament emulating the Westminster system of government and ensure regular free and fair elections so that the will of the people can be realised. That mission was accomplished in 1994 and since then the ANC has been rudderless in an ocean of anguish.

Beside the popular refrain, “a better life for all”, it has not had a coherent programme of action, a vision, or a modus operandi to talk about these last 28 years. It’s time we call a spade a spade — the ANC of yesteryear with its ethical and principled leaders is no more.

I mean, the ANC suffers a massive defeat in the last local government elections, dipping below the 50% mark and the main decision of the National Executive Committee at its first sitting for 2022 is not what the organisation must do to regain the confidence of the electorate and how the ANC must change and adapt to meaningfully address the concerns of our people, but that all regional and provincial conferences must have convened and finalised their respective elective conferences before March.

The reason being, we the leadership must be assured of support from all quarters in order to be guaranteed access to power and public money. This is what I call suffering from the foibles of incumbency. This is all the current ANC is obsessed about. Not the state of our municipalities, not the state of our economy, nor the general state of the infrastructure in our country and certainly not concerned about the safety and security of us, the citizens.

They are all looking at the December National Elective Conference already — so as far as they are concerned the year is done. There is no time to serve the people. Each and every time we hear from the ANC these days, it’s all about the infighting in the ANC and not about bread-and-butter issues of the masses. And when the crooked leaders win at conference, then other even more crooked people will attempt to unseat them, and so the vicious cycle will continue. Pathetic! 

In the history of the ANC, there have been two previous periods, epochs if you like, where the health of the ANC in its 110-year existence has been at such a low ebb. The first was in the 1930s, under the leadership of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, the ANC hit rock bottom then, and hence, by 1935, a new leadership was elected. Zaccheus Richard Mahabane and Canon Calata took up leadership, president and secretary respectively, and in 1937 they organised a national conference (the ANC was effectively almost dead) and they called it, “Organisation of the ANC” to mark the jubilee (25 years) of the ANC’s existence since 1912.

The conference looked at how to revamp the ANC. Now, interestingly, Calata introduces Moses Kotane and JB Marks and though they were leaders of the Communist Party of SA, they were also ANC members. So, communists played their part. Marks spearheaded the organising committee and began to expand the membership of the ANC.

Then in 1940 AB Xuma takes over from Mahabane but Calata remains the SG of the ANC. One of the significant things this leadership did in 1943 was to amend the ANC constitution and move away from block membership to individual membership. Block membership meant that when a chief joins the ANC, it was assumed that now his subjects are also members of the ANC. Furthermore, they amended the constitution and established the Women’s League and the Youth League of the ANC. So, constitutional amendments played a part. Hence the formation in 1944 under the leadership of Anton Lembede of the ANC Youth League together with Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe etc.

So, the influx of the youth and women played a part. The run up to the 32nd National Conference of the ANC in 1949, is where the Youth League types decide they have had enough of the gerontocracy in the ANC and that they themselves want to occupy leadership in the NEC. In other words, they came to that conference with the explicit aim of taking over the leadership of the ANC. Basically, they were tired of petitions, delegations and peaceful defiance, they wanted action.

So, at this conference, they find Moses Kotane, JB Marks, Edwin Mofutsanyana and Dan Tloome, all communists and trained Marxist-Leninists. They had all been to Moscow to the party-political school in the 1920s and 1930s already, learning theory and honing their skills in practice. So, ideology played a part.

The Youth League came with a programme of action and they presented this to President Xuma at his house a week or so before the elective conference. Basically, they said, if you support our programme of action we will support your re-election as president. He refused to accept such conditionalities and showed them the door that night.

On their walk from Sophiatown back to Orlando East, that fateful evening is when they decided that Xuma and others must go and hence they went to recruit Dr James Moroka as the next president of the ANC. They recalled him being a fiery speaker at the 1946 National Representative Council because it happened in the wake of the mineworkers’ strike of 1946 and the brutal repression of that strike by the state. Their programme of action is adopted and hence in the 1950s, you get the Defiance Campaign, Congress of the People campaign etc. So, this is how the lull and moribund state of the ANC is averted in the 1930s to 1950s.

The second period is post-1960 and 1964 represented by the brutal suppression after the Rivonia trial. The president is Albert Luthuli but effectively Oliver Tambo assumes the leadership of the organisation after the banning of the ANC and it being forced into exile.

As Luthuli takes over the mantle, 52 leaders were banned, 20 additional leaders plus 8,000 volunteers were convicted for Defiance Campaign activities. The organisation was in a bad state. In addition to all this, the Congress movement suffered a blow with Black Consciousness being the dominant movement.

With the release of some prisoners from Robben Island in the late 1960s and early 1970 — John Nkadimeng and others — they realise that the Congress movement is nowhere. So they decide that in order to re-establish the Congress movement they had to go and organise high school students and hence the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) is born to activate the Congress movement again.

So now we have the current and third epoch and the ANC is sliding into the doldrums yet again. The Women’s League is a joke, the Youth League is destroyed, and both organisations are equally obsessed and suffer from the foibles of incumbency.

So the question is how are you going to create a new cohort of cadres that are steeped in the Congress tradition and politics? Is it at all still possible? You would require waves and waves of young people, educated and steeped in class politics because our problematique is no longer a race question, it’s no longer about racial discrimination, but racial discrimination is a residue of class stratification, hence it’s a class question. So, if they are not armed with those analytical tools, they will not be able to understand class politics. But if they are equipped, then you could tell them to read William Manchester’s book, The Arms of Krupp and thus get an understanding of what the EFF really represents.

And so, if we are to learn from the past epochs in the life of the ANC, it seems that perhaps a renewal path must entail communists coming to the party and giving direction on the current national discourse to the ANC. When was the last time that such an intellectual feat from the SACP was to be had?

Then we come to constitutional amendments and how best we can fine-tune the ANC constitution to best suit the current realities in the party and the country. The deletion of four sections of the constitution, all of which deal with money and the abuse thereof in the organisation must surely be investigated. It was deleted and not amended prior to the Nasrec conference. Who done it, is the question.

Can we yet again rely on the youth element to step up and challenge these geriatrics, all of whom are still jostling for positions when in fact they should all be going on retirement, the whole lot of them?

And finally, can we return to ideology to guide us through this tumultuous period? Capitalism is in crisis whether the bourgeoisie wants to admit it or not. Poverty, inequality and general misery are all very present in the most advanced economies in the world. Can China be a guiding light? I know many say that the system in China is capitalist but the form of government, the political system and so much more is not in congruence with Western democracies.

What do we make of this? It is rather apparent to me that for this revolution to succeed in South Africa, we need to settle our score with the National Bourgeoisie. Failing to do this, you will never be able to determine your own future (vision), nor will you be able to create a new state. Not manage the state you have inherited because it’s a bourgeois state. No amount of interventions for the poor will happen if it’s not through charity, you will always ask the question, where is the money for this and that?

The working class must therefore settle its score with the National Bourgeoisie so that they can earn the right to determine their own destiny and a new state fit for purpose.

So, it seems to me that if the ANC wants to indeed be fit for purpose, it should answer that most pertinent question, what form and content must a programme take in order to settle the score with the National Bourgeoisie, because without this first step in the new epoch, we will forever remain enslaved and doomed.    

If we all simply remain focused on our own spheres of influence, whether it be in the private sector, academia, church, government and/or civil society, we will not be able to give credence to this renewal we often hear and speak about. Lest we prioritise the people and their sufferings and not be infatuated with the foibles of incumbency, all of us would have failed the revolution. DM


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All Comments 19

  • So the author is suggesting that a class struggle led by the youth is South Africa’s answer to the “decline” of the ANC, and to “settle the score with the National Bourgeoisie”. There must be a better solution than to retreat into outdated communist ideology.

    • I wonder if the author has bothered to read Prof Archie Brown’s “The Rise and Fall of Communism”, or noticed that Communism has effectively destroyed the USSR?

  • “It is rather apparent to me that for this revolution to succeed in South Africa, we need to settle our score with the National Bourgeoisie.”
    What are you suggesting? A full revolution? How do you plan to “settle the score”?

  • Maybe the poor will rise in more a more organised way than you predict. The reality is, as the pathetic Mpophomeni turn out confirmed for any in doubt, that the ANC is spent and offers nothing much worth having.

  • The ANC is a corrupt kleptocracy with strong Stalinist tendencies: not in the doldrums. While I am not anti- communist per se, the fact is that Russia, a great country with huge resources, was ruined by a communist elite, who prioritized loyalty and centralized power, while not giving a fig for the “masses”. Sound familiar? As for settling scores, name one example where it has achieved anything but bloodshed. And what does it mean? A guillotine in Sandton Square? Understanding people’s anger and frustration is one thing, telling them to kill the oppressor and take back what is theirs quite another. Ask all the Zimbabweans in S.A. how that worked for them. The last paragraphs are like artefacts found in a time capsule buried long ago. It’s dangerous talk and no solution. I do agree that all those old crooks in Parliament should retire if they aren’t first convicted of fraud, theft and corruption.

  • Yes, Oscar, you are right that the ANC has lost its way. You make a good case that it has no hope of renewal, unlike twice in the last century.

    Yes, you are right that this issue is no longer race, but it’s class. Almost right. Not “class”, in the classical Marxist sense of the word of worker, but economic class. The DA has been castigated for dropping race as a proxy for economic class …

    Yet you speak of “we”, as if you are a member of the poor, or the working class (which are more or less mutually exclusive, in the country!) yet you are actually Deputy Vice Chancellor. A solid member of the “National Bourgeoisie” that you rail against.

    If the ANC is to be revitalised, it needs a new philosophy and a new aim. Turning RSA into an “African Tiger” would be a good approach. Singapore no doubt has some lessons for us. Outdated and obsolete political theories are not relevant.

  • Never have I read an article by Oscar that is not immensely thought-provoking. And Virginia, your comment is one of the best I have ever read on DM

  • Sounds like typical communist rhetoric – little to offer except revolution. Who is the National Bourgeoisie that must be unseated? Those who control the wealth and the means of production? The ANC has tried for 25 years to do this and has only shifted it from the Nationalist Party elite to the ANC elite. Those who earn, say, more than R 40 000 per month and are thus the wealthiest 5% in the country – those who pay the majority of the country’s taxes? The ruling class? Most recent experiments along these lines have failed – the Chinese cultural revolution, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Zimbabwe, Venezuela. What South Africa needs is better ideas to bring in ethical and accountable leadership in business and in government.

  • I don’t think “settling the score” is the answer, unless I totally misunderstand Oscar’s meaning. The answer is simply Honest Government for the People, by the People. I don’t mean this in a party – political way

  • To say that today the ANC is no longer fit for purpose is to be 20 years (if not more) out of date.

    To suggest more communist ideology as the solution to a catastrophically failed pro-communist regime is to be around 100 years (if not more) out of date.

    Time to wake up, Oscar. You’re sounding like a has-been that can’t adapt to the future because they have a problematically narrow view of the past.

    None of the 3 main approaches of the Enlightenment have succeeded in what they set out to do. Of the 3, in my opinion it is communism that has failed most and fallen furthest into inhumane absurdity. Anyone entertaining it’s impractical principles and thereby ignoring its abominable track record and body-count is demonstrating that they are wilfully ignorant of history (just as Karl Marx was) and thus not really worth much academically. These sorts of people, like Oscar, are more of a burden to society where it is abundantly clear that pragmatic politics is desperately needed.

  • “The foibles of incumbency” a very novel way, sir, of describing the ANCs descent into infamy and thievery!I do wish that we could all see it that way, along with the president’s”lapses” when speaking of the governing party’s present activities, as well as describing the former health minister’s unwilling resignation as “honorable”. I’m sure that given time, the critics of the ANC will all come to the same conclusions!

  • The problem is that the ANC has never been funded by it’s members. So the organisation needs to find cash. Funders included Stalinist USSR, Suharto of Indonesia and then tenderpreneurs like the Watsons. The one who pays the piper calls the tune.

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