The African National Congress (ANC) is one of the few political organisations in the world that has existed for over 100 years. It remains powerful electorally and although it received less votes than before in last year's national general election, it could well still be returned as the ruling party for the foreseeable future.
The ANC has meant different things at different phases of its existence. What has been an important factor in its survival – and may still be a reason why it still counts on support – is that it has been more than a political organisation. It has been deeply embedded in much of South African society as a cultural phenomenon, a part of people’s lives in the same way as the church.
It may have started hesitantly – some would say timidly – on 8 January in 1912, but it grew to be an important factor in people’s lives and consciousness in a way that few other institutions ever did.
Much research on the period before the banning of the ANC in 1960 shows that many people grew up “as ANC”. Some survivors of the Congress of the People campaign, which led to the adoption of the Freedom Charter whose 60th anniversary is celebrated this year, explained that they did not have membership cards. “Why must we take out ANC membership cards,” they said. “We are ANC.” People grew up in families and generations who belonged to “Congress”.
Wilton Mkwayi, who served 26 years on Robben Island as first accused in the “second Rivonia trial”, describes how his father posted him an ANC membership card when he was at school. His father assumed that becoming a member of the ANC was part of his son’s transition to manhood, or adulthood – a significant rite of passage.
Presumably this was in a household where it was assumed that the ANC was very much where the family belonged, and the ANC saw itself as part of that family. It was part of what the family meant, its identity. Very many people, for much of its existence, considered the ANC to be the only organisation for Africans and to some extent, black people in general.
It is easy to underestimate the significance of this long period of the ANC being not just a political organisation but also a cultural presence in peoples’ lives. In the rural areas many people, when they prayed at night, would mention the leaders on Robben Island. Thus, while the ANC may have been legally absent and many of its leaders physically absent for 30 years it was still very much present in ways that were often not directly political.
One of the results of the ANC being more than a political presence is that it did not need specifically party political activities to continue to exist. And that is part of what was drawn on when the organisation was rebuilt underground after its banning in 1960. People knew that their family “were ANC” and they knew if they wanted to find out about the ANC there were old people who had been in the organisation and could tell them about it. And that is what happened.
The 1976 Soweto uprising is often depicted as one where the youth taught their parents to resist, after their having become demoralised by apartheid oppression. There may have been some truth in this, but there was also a different phenomenon at work.
In some cases, on learning that their children were absorbing anti-white forms of opposition to apartheid, parents explained that the struggle against apartheid was to build a society that belongs “to all who live in it, black and white”, in the words of the Freedom Charter. This was the character of the exchange between Zwelakhe Sisulu and Albertina Sisulu, where Albertina ‘sat him down at the kitchen table’, and explained the ANC’s understanding, which Zwelakhe then adopted, saying “Ma, you are right”.
Being a member of the ANC or “being ANC” meant different things in the past to what it means today.
The organisation started on the defensive, after conquest and seizure of land of African and other peoples and further onslaughts on the conditions of existence of black people. For most of its life the ANC sought rights in a situation where the constitution of the country denied black people recognition as free human beings. It was different from the United States, where African American people struggled and continue to struggle for rights that are supposed to be theirs under the constitution. The ANC members had no such supposed entitlement. They were “constitutionalists without constitutional rights”.
Gradually oppression and repression increased, but forms of resistance also changed.
Industrialisation and urbanisation, the development of a substantial working class and various other factors changed the character of the struggles against white domination and also led to industrial action, the emergence of trade unions and the use of strikes and other forms of struggle, which sometimes radicalised the activities of the ANC.
Some people engaged in the ANC in relative safety, making representations to the authorities. But there were notorious massacres, like that at Bulhoek in 1921. And the ANC, Communist Party and others had their martyrs from very early on. One of these, Johannes Nkosi, was shot during a pass demonstration in 1930.
But the period of heavy repression in the bantustans in the late 1950s and banning after 1960 changed what it meant to be a member of the ANC, something that could previously be pursued in relative safety. Anyone who remained a member or assisted the ANC after 1960 had to be prepared to pay a heavy price.
The Communist Party, a banned organisation from 1950, had regrouped and was by the time of the ANC’s banning quite experienced in underground work. When the ANC took the route of illegality it drew on the SACP’s experience and this inaugurated a period where the two organisations became tightly linked.
We know from this period that people were imprisoned, hanged and killed in pursuing illegal activities or in combat. So right up until the late 1980s involvement with the ANC carried a price, at any rate unless you were able to arrange that what you did in exile carried no danger.
Thinking about it now, with less innocence, it may have been that not everyone was exposed to high levels of danger and that some were located in a way that they could also derive benefits in the period of illegality.
When the ANC (and the SACP) was unbanned in 1990 it bore an image of an organisation that had suffered greatly, with many of its cadres losing their lives including famous names like Chris Hani, Ruth First and Bram Fischer. It was also revered because of the quality of some of its leaders, notably Moses Kotane, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Lilian Ngoyi, and Walter and Albertina Sisulu.
But the organisation is in trouble now. There are few who still associate the ANC with the heroic tradition that it purports to represent. It is now associated with sleaze and crime. It is simultaneously the organisation that brought the democratic rights it is now undermining.
It is difficult to forecast what lies ahead for the ANC, whether it can recover the tradition of service that inspired so many. We do not know what is happening in branches of the organisation in small villages. But it appears that the organisation is in decline, and that those who control it are bent on self-enrichment and starving the members of debate.
Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Polity.org.za. Suttner spent over eleven years as a political prisoner or under house arrest. His book Recovering Democracy will be published by Jacana Media and Lynn Rienner early this year. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.