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The ANC Split: Disunity or a Strengthened and Meaningful Democracy

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It has long been inevitable that the African National Congress, Africa’s oldest political party, would eventually split. The question has always been when rather than if. The inevitable took place this past week with the launch in Bloemfontein of the Congress of the People; or COPE as it will be known.

Founded in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress and significantly influenced in both style and policy by the slightly older National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the United States, the ANC has always been something of an unwieldy organization trying to balance both tradition (it once had a House of Chiefs) and modernity.

By the late thirties it was virtually moribund and, in terms of importance for the liberation struggle, surpassed by several alternate African organizations. In the early forties a group of young militants led by the likes of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Anton Lembede and Oliver Tambo took over the ANC’s Youth League and, from this platform, went on to revitalize the entire organization. By the 1950s the ANC was once again the dominant African organization in South Africa.

In the meantime the National Party had come to power (1948) and began to implement the draconian racial separation laws known collectively as apartheid. By the early sixties it had become clear that “civil rights” protests would get nowhere with the hard line racist architects of apartheid. The ANC sent part of its leadership out of the country to represent it in exile. The other faction would begin the internal armed struggle. Mandela was in the latter group: arrested, tried and sentenced to prison where he spent the next three decades.

Simultaneously, the ANC absorbed dissident groups representing various other ethno-national communities (Coloured, Indian and European) and became the main organizational expression of the anti-apartheid movement. Outlawed by the government, the ANC kept its identity in exile but re-surfaced internally in a variety of expressions, the most prominent of which was the United Democratic Front (UDF).

More importantly, the political, social and cultural homogeneity of the African majority was changing markedly. Traditional South African peasant society was significantly supplanted during the first half of the 20th century by an urbanized African proletariat connected initially to the mining industry but, with the growth of the South African political economy, to all sectors of a growing industrial juggernaut; by far the largest economy in Africa. By the early seventies this black proletariat had produced an effective, radical, self-conscious and highly articulate labor movement that eventually coalesced into the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

Furthermore, simultaneous with these developments, the growing South African economy saw the emergence of an educated black salariat and small businessmen that spawned a not insignificant African middle and upper middle class.

These three sectors of black South African society -– what was left of the traditional peasantry, the urban proletariat and the new middle class -– had one thing in common. They were black and, as such, all subject alike to the barbarous depredations of the apartheid state. All were united in opposition to that state. However, this anti-apartheid unity masked significant underlying differences having to do overwhelmingly with class, but also with ethnicity and region.

Due to a combination of internal resistance and external pressures, the apartheid regime fell in the early nineties. Mandela and his colleagues were released from prison, the exiled ANC leadership faction returned home and the UDF leadership was folded back into the now dominant ANC which proceeded to win all subsequent elections and dominate government for the last decade and a half.

Mandela forged his name indelibly as a towering historical presence by presiding over the first few years of democratic governance in South Africa with an emphasis on democracy, justice, stability, tolerance and forgiveness. It was widely known even then that the day to day chores of running the government and implementing policy were left to the new technocratic class under the leadership of Thabo Mbeki who eventually succeeded Mandela as President.

Succeeding a historical figure of the stature of Nelson Mandela could never be an easy task…and it wasn’t.

The new South African government was faced with an insoluble problem. On the one hand, there were the legitimate and just demands of the masses of deprived people who had suffered so much under apartheid for some sort of compensation and restitution; jobs, land, education and opportunity to escape the confines of the past. On the other hand, there was the framework of the existing domestic economy and of the unchallenged dominance of rapacious and unalloyed international capitalism. The Soviet bloc no longer existed!

From the point of view of the new African governing class there wasn’t much “wiggle room”. They were firmly located within the existing international political economy. They could have chosen a program of radical wealth redistribution through a policy of confiscation. As historically legitimate and just in righting past wrongs that such a policy would have been, it would have produced massive capital flight, economic breakdown and reduction of South Africa to pariah status by the international capitalist economy.

The Mbeki technocrats chose a policy of stability and support for the existing economic structures. Furthermore, they pursued a policy of empowering the now politically liberated African middle class; a faction of which they themselves were an integral part. The civil service was significantly Africanized, but not bloated in order to satisfy every potential job seeker. The completely white private capital sector largely cooperated by hiring and promoting African staff. Unfortunately, in order to take advantage of these new opportunities one had to be educated and qualified; options not available to the masses of the African people.

In the nearly two decades since the end of apartheid there has emerged a considerable African upper class and vastly expanded middle class with all the pretensions and interests that these classes everywhere exhibit. They want to protect their economic interests and if their political and economic allies in this effort happen to be white, then so be it.

Amid the skyscrapers, fancy restaurants, big cars and wealthy suburbs -– now inhabited by black and white alike –- there remains a vast population group for whom the end of apartheid has brought little appreciable change. The feeling of pride in seeing Mandela receive a Nobel Peace Prize, birthday celebrations at Wembley Stadium and international hero worship, of seeing their country run by black people, can only go so far if one is jobless, locked into a life of poverty, homeless, dying of HIV/AIDS, of other preventable diseases, without educational opportunity. Pride does not fill an empty belly.

Massive dissatisfaction with what the existing ANC government had delivered to the masses in the post-apartheid era led to a rebellion among the rank and file of the ANC a year ago. They rejected the technocratic policies the Mbeki government had pursued and moved decidedly to the left by rejecting the incumbent’s candidacy and electing Jacob Zuma to head the ANC. Zuma had the support of COSATU and the small, but vibrant and influential Communist Party (SACP). It was this coalition that engineered Mbeki’s resignation as President of South Africa several months ago and installed Kgalema Mothlane, a Zuma ally, as President.

Elections are scheduled for 2009 and it is expected that Zuma will be the ANC candidate representing a significant move to the left for the governing party.

The opposition? In the post-apartheid era of ANC dominance there has been very little. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) is a Zulu-centric regional party of limited significance. There are also the remnants of the old racist National Party running around in various guises. Effectively, the only opposition has come from the Democratic Alliance. a largely white group with significant “Coloured” support in the Western Cape. DA has never been able to attract anything more than a modicum of African support.

This will, I think, change radically with the launch of COPE. My guess is that either the DA will merge with COPE or that a significant number of its white voters will support the breakaway faction under the leadership of Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota, COPE’s newly elected president. As the DA has shown, elections in the new South Africa cannot be won without mobilizing African support.

Lokota’s credentials as a freedom fighter are impeccable. He is also a veteran of Robben Island and was Defense Minister in Mbeki’s ANC government. There’s little doubt in my mind that Zuma’s ANC will win the next elections. However, I think they will do so with a diminished majority. The African upper and middle classes will support COPE as will large numbers of white, Indian and Colored voters.

The existence of a strong opposition with African leadership will require the ANC to be far less autocratic and far more transparent than it was under Mbeki. Paradoxically it was Mbeki’s loss of ANC party leadership and subsequent forced resignation as the country’s president that led to COPE’s creation.

And that will be good for South African democracy!

In the meantime, King Robert, the Mad Butcher of Zimbabwe, continues to fiddle while his country burns…and his people die.

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About Bill Hansen

  • Zedd


    Thanks for the article.

    I am very nervous about Zuma. Firstly, I am surprised that a guy with his unrefined (for lack of a better word) tendencies could penetrate the electorate in SA. I don’t know much about him but he makes me very nervous. Also the fact that he is Zulu could be problematic. Zulus are immensely proud and love “zuluness”. With their large numbers, it may be difficult getting rid of him in the event that he doesn’t work out. And off course the African tendency towards protocol and authority figures would make it difficult to get rid of this guy if he turns out to be as wrong for SA as he appears to be at the onset.

    I hope that I am wrong about him.

    However, I am delighted that the ANC is dismantling. There was a danger of it becoming too powerful and the inevitability of SA becoming like every other African country that is monopolized by on party or one leader. Also, it was united around the liberation struggle. I am glad that there will be some pronounced ideological variation that will create competition for power and therefore keep the politicians better behaved.

    So bravo COPE or should I say viva COPE.

  • Bill, I agree with you. This can only be good for South Africa.

    In 1994, Nelson Mandela was happy that the ANC did not get over 65% of the vote and could not change the constitution at any point. Mandela wrote in “Long Walk to Freedom” that he was glad that the ANC did not get the absolute majority. However, the ANC got over 65% of the vote in the next elections. The fact that the ANC had such large margins in the polls has caused lots of relaxation in the ANC and led to the lack of service delivery.

    While the ANC will definitely remain the most powerful political party in South Africa, having a strong opposition can only be good. The ANC will have to earn the votes, not only count on them.