Hegal remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as a great tragedy, the second as a miserable farce. Caussidiere for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848-1851 for the Montagne of 1793-1795, and the London constable [Louis Bonaparte] with the first dozen indebted lieutenants that came along for the little corporal [Napoleon] with his band of marshalls! The eighteenth Brumaire of the idiot for the eighteenth Brumaire of the genius! -Marx: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1851-2)
The African National Congress’s centenary celebrations, which began in a decidedly lack-lustre fashion in Bloemfontein this weekend, are a stark reminder of the horrible degeneration of that movement.
The celebrations themselves are estimated to have cost 100 million Rand (£7.8m), as intra-black inequality under the ANC increases and South Africa overtakes Brazil to become the world’s most unequal nation, where one in five is still without electricity. Meanwhile, under the Zulu-tribalist and polygamist Jacob Zuma, the post-apartheid constitution drawn up by Mandela and his comrades, and widely regarded as a beacon of human rights and freedom of expression, is being systematically undermined. Zuma, who has already abolished South Africa’s main anti-corruption agency (the ‘Scorpions‘), now seeks a subserviant judicary, draconian secrecy laws and the re-introduction of “tribal values.”
Zuma presides over massive corruption, having spent 65 million Rand renovating his Nkandia home, and ensuring that his wives and (20) children benefit from extensive state contracts through their involvement in over 100 companies.
On the international arena, South Africa now regularly lines up with the despots and tyrants, voting with China and Russia at the UN and opposing democracy movements in Burma, the Middle East and Zimbabwe.
There is opposition to Zuma within the ANC, but the stark fact is that none of the oppositional leaders would represent any improvement: Zuma’s old foe and predecessor as president, Thabo Mbeki presided over massive corruption and notoriously denounced the scientific evidence that HIV is linked to Aids, thereby helping spread death and misery (at least 365,000 early deaths, according to a Harvard study), throughout the country and beyond to the entire continent. This denial of scientific evidence is one of the few things Mbeki and Zuma agree upon.
Julius Malema, the suspended Youth League leader of the ANC, is a an opponent of Zuma, but scarcely a credible one: a sectarian demagogue, he has just brought a big farm for the equivalent of £350, 000 and his source of wealth remains a mystery, but can only be the result of massive corruption. One of his supporters is the murderous factionalist Winnie Mandela, ex-wife of Nelson.
The ANC (and its forerunner, the South African Native Congress, founded in January 1912) was not, of course, ever a socialist organisation. It prided itself on being “cross-class” and involving liberals and petty bourgeois democrats (of all races), shopkeepers, trade unionists and communists (ie the Stalinist CP). Its relationship with the black and coloured South African trade union movement was always somewhat strained. During the massive mineworkers’ strike of 1946, for instance, the ANC and their Stalinist allies played a disastrous role, directly leading to the isolation and defeat of the strike. The class organisation and mobilisation of the African proletariat, which peaked in 1945-6, declined for a few years, and in the fifties a much closer alliance was forged between the ANC and the CP. As a result the ANC turned towards a strategy of mass action and passive resistance to the 1948 Apartheid law and ever-tighter segregationalist legislation.
The South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) was formed in 1955 on the initiative of the CP and ANC, promoting non-racial industrial unionism and combined economic and political struggle. This was, of course, a positive development, but in practice the alliance between the organised workers and their petty bourgeois allies in the ANC meant, inevitably, the subordination of workers’ struggles to the limits of the democratic and nationalist programme of the petty bourgeoisie.
Then in 1960, came the Sharpeville massacre, when the police opened fire on a march organised by the Pan African Congress (PAC, a semi-Maoist breakaway from the ANC), killing at least 60 people. Both the ANC and the PAC claim that their response to the massacre represented a major step forward by the liberation movement, breaking the bonds of legalism and non-violent protest. A leading ANC theorist, Ben Turok, wrote:
“The shootings at Sharpeville marked a turning point… [They] broke the belief that a non-violent solution was possible…and they destroyed any hope that the legal systen could be used to halt police repression…The foundation for the transfer from non-violence to armed struggle was being laid.”
However, the turn from non-violent mass protest to armed struggle and guerillaism – necessary as it almost certainly was – meant that the working class continued to play a subordinate role in the ANC/CP strategy. And, of necessity, this could not be an internally democratic movement. The ANC armed wing, Umkkhonto we Siwze (‘spear of the nation’) was routed by the police after a campaign of sabotage and Nelson Mandela, together with several other brave fighters, was arrested and jailed (“for life”) at Robben Island in 1963-4 for high treason. The remaining ANC leadership went into exile.
The rest of the story, culminating in the internal collapse of the apartheid regime, Mandela’s release in 1990, the abolition of apartheid in 1991 and the first all-race elections in 1994, is well-known. In the three elections since 1994, the ANC has never scored less than 60 per cent of the vote. Even opponents of the ANC/CP “cross-class” strategy (like myself), must give them credit for their tenacity and courage. Their long campaign, flawed as it was, played a major part in the eventual collapse of apartheid. But a working class-based campaign could have put socialism on the agenda. The ANC/CP methods of organising (elitist, conspiratorial, undemocratic) were undoubtably necessary during much of the movement’s existence, but have also laid the basis for the present combined tragedy and farce in South Africa.
In the light of the horrible events taking place now under Zuma, and immediately before him under Mbeki, the conclusion is unavoidable : the ANC remained a principled movement despite its politics, because of the extraordinary personal courage and integrity of people like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Albert Luthuli and Walter Sisulu. The likes of Zuma, Mbeki and Malema are the true inheritors of a corrupt political tradition…but have betrayed the personal heroism of their predecessors.