When considering how to rebuild democratic life once the Jacob Zuma period passes, we need to recognise that, even without Zuma, many people feel alienated from political life and steps need to be taken to make people feel that politics is about them and not simply their representatives in Cape Town for whom they may vote every five years.
In the period from 1990 until the 1994 elections I headed the ANC political education section. Our brief was to provide guidelines for the induction of new members. It was not totally clear what this meant since the ANC had been unbanned after 30 years of illegality and there was not clarity as to how the organisation would be re-established, what it would mean to be an ANC member. It could not simply pick up from where it left in 1960. We saw it as a challenge to try to understand that, within a substantially changed political life in South Africa and a rapidly changing international world, with the gradual collapse of the former Soviet Union and allied states.
At that time a range of foreign experts were also keen to engage with this question and offered a barrage of advice in order to turn the ANC into a “normal” political party. What was meant was that it should become a political party in the image of what were then mainly depoliticised political parties of Western Europe and the USA. It also meant that the ANC should shed its “liberation movement baggage”.
We used to conduct training of members, inducting them into the history and principles of the ANC. We understood, like the foreign experts, the need for rethinking, but our orientation was precisely the opposite from theirs and away from the “normalisation” of the ANC. In contrast, we wanted to retain the “liberation movement” qualities, as we understood that to refer to the ANC’s mass, popular character.
There were some who saw popular politics, the involvement of people from all sections of the population and a range of sites of existence as something temporary, essentially restricted to the period of opposition to apartheid when it was essential to mobilise and organise people throughout the country and from a variety of sectors in order to defeat the apartheid regime.
In contrast, we saw popular agency as not something to be equated purely with a period of opposition, especially at the height of opposition to apartheid, but a continuing feature of the type of democracy we wanted to build.
We were constantly preoccupied with the idea that the ANC should not be transformed into what the notion of a conventional political party had become, where the structures of the organisation would simply be geared to elections. We knew how many of the social democratic parties of Europe and politics in the United States had lost their popular character and that there was little debate in the context of preoccupation with electoral contestation.
We came out of the popular power period of the 1980s or in the case of those who were not inside the country at the time or in prison, were sympathetic to it. We had a strong belief in the need for popular power inside and outside the ANC. Within the ANC we believed in an active membership who would not be satisfied to see the realisation of the Freedom Charter’s call that “The People Shall Govern!” by simply electing representatives and gazing at leaders ascending to positions of power.
We also saw the need for social movements outside the direct sway of the ANC, organisations that were linked to people in a range of sectors, in order to ensure that the democratic project was not simply related to the state and political parties but every sphere of life that concerns citizens.
At this time the ANC was engaged in negotiations with the apartheid regime and we constantly emphasised the need to strengthen the hands of negotiators through demonstrating “power on the ground”, that is through popular action in support of democratic demands. Clearly some in the leadership were not happy with this and many believed, that “leaders have to lead”. There was a sense that many, but not all, of the leaders did not want, on attaining political power, to fear they might have to constantly turn back and seek a fresh mandate from their constituents.
Whether consciously intended or not the process of negotiations and the election of the first democratic government had the cumulative effect of displacing the “popular subject” in favour of the ANC, especially its leadership, as the supposed embodiment of the people. We believed in popular subjectivity, by which I mean popular agency, the people acting in their own name, connected with the ANC branches to some extent, but also substantially as an autonomous and democratic force organised in a range of social movements.
Increasingly negotiations led to agreements that were then reported to the membership. These engagements had to be conducted by individual representatives, sometimes totally behind closed doors in order to secure agreement. Consequently, large numbers of organisational representatives could not be involved. Those who were not direct participants would have to rely on fairly loose notions of mandating on what had to be negotiated in detailed and complex agreements. This and receiving reports on agreements would often happen at a fast pace, as the process leading to elections speeded up.
These talks or negotiations sometimes resulted in controversial outcomes and important decisions were sometimes made without prior consultation. The suspension of armed action for example evoked considerable outrage, not only amongst umKhonto we Sizwe (MK) but many other ANC supporters.
More important than the substance of the decision to suspend armed action was that it signalled a process whereby the leaders would make decisions and then communicate these to the membership on whose behalf and in whose interests they were assumed to act. It started a process whereby the power of the membership was reduced in favour of decision making on their behalf, decisions presumed to be in their interests and that of the people at large. Indeed this came to be internalised as a way of operating and was subsequently endorsed insofar as the same leadership was substantially re-elected over the years that followed, including after the adoption of the GEAR macroeconomic policy in 1996, without consultation.
Even before the rise of Zuma a process of distantiation between the membership of the ANC and the leadership had started to grow, with major decisions being made between national conferences and decisions of national conferences often having little significant effect on how government proceeded.
The ANC of today faces questions much more fundamental than its relationship with its membership and the South African public. It now experiences a crisis of legitimacy, as many watch the leadership of the ANC and government being demonstrated to have gone beyond acting without a mandate. They have connived at and indeed played a substantial role in state capture, a form of corruption that goes beyond individual benefit but has in fact compromised the sovereignty of our state.
There is also the real life failure of the state to perform its core functions and duties, as manifested in the social grants crisis and the repeated failure of law enforcement agencies.
This has evoked a range of protest marches, petitions and the formation of groupings calling for the ANC to hold a special consultative conference, or for Zuma to resign and a variety of calls for national dialogue or a national convention. Cumulatively these interventions all express alarm at the state of affairs in the country. The organisations or gatherings of people have varying degrees of confidence in the ANC’s capacity to “self-correct” and many represent loose organisational groupings aiming to bring about change.
Starting even before the rise of Zuma we have seen what some scholars call the “rebellion of the poor”, a sense of deep unhappiness that needs to be addressed in order to satisfy the basic needs of many whose lives have not changed substantially under post apartheid democracy. The various protests and public manifestations today express alarm at the current state of our democratic order and the need for change.
Any sustainable remedying of the current crisis in South Africa would appear to require steps to establish a broad movement, deriving from a range of sectors and united behind common goals. There are a number of objectives that are common to those on the left and the right, those who are workers and those who are in varying types of business, in the professions, in faith based communities and other areas of South African life.
To build a unified movement and vision in order to reclaim our country from Zuma and the Guptas and to rebuild it on a path demonstrating respect for legality, concern for the plight of the poor and the vulnerable, means listening to both general and specific needs and aspirations in order to join people together to recover our democratic promise.
We need to study what lessons can be drawn from the largely unexpected electoral success of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders in the UK and US respectively, a process of building a broader political movement that started in Barack Obama’s electoral campaign. In each case they drew on people who had lost enthusiasm for existing politics and offered them an opportunity to build something new. We need to consider how we can develop similar political opportunities.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison has recently been reissued with a new introduction covering his more recent “life outside the ANC by Jacana Media. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner