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Demise of the ANC: a tentative understanding

Professor Raymond Suttner
Photo by Ivor Markman
Professor Raymond Suttner

19th September 2016

By: Raymond Suttner


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“The opposite of good is not evil, it is indifference.” – Abraham Joshua Heschel

There is a growing sense that the ANC may be in the process of disintegration. Some assessments are based on electoral considerations, relating to the recent ANC setbacks. These do not spell out the causes and the wider social, political and even emotional meanings and consequences of the collapse of a movement that lived in the hearts and minds and homes of very many people. What are the reasons for thinking that the ANC may be collapsing or disintegrating?


It is important to understand what the ANC and the SACP to a significant extent represented to very many South Africans for at least 40 years, between 1950 and 1990. I specify these years because the ANC was not the hegemonic force within African nationalism that it later became for most of its first four decades, when it was overshadowed by the Garveyites and the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU). (See Raymond Suttner “African Nationalism” in P Vale, L Hamilton and E H Prinsloo, Intellectual Traditions in South Africa, 2014).

By the time the ANC became a hegemonic force in African nationalism and increasingly for most, anti-apartheid forces, it bound people on the basis of a range of factors. These included the exemplary leaders who inspired many people with a will to be free, and who trusted this leadership of the organisations – people like Chief Albert Luthuli, Dr Yusuf Dadoo, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Lillian Ngoyi, Nelson Mandela, Bram Fischer, Ruth First, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo and many others.


People had a sense that the organisation grew over time. It faced adversity, but generally overcame its difficulties through evaluation of what had gone wrong and charted a course of action that made sense to many people. It learnt hard lessons and it changed and developed over time.

In the period to which I refer, the ANC was relatively self-reflective about its problems and tried to correct weaknesses it displayed. The most famous example of self-examination and reformulation of approaches may have been the 1969 consultative conference, held in Morogoro, Tanzania, whose strategy and tactics document is still quoted today.
This was at a time when the organisation confronted deep demoralisation amongst its members, notably MK soldiers who felt they were languishing in camps after the Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns. There was also a sense of despair in the face of the apparent invincibility of the apartheid regime.

The conference charted a path forward, after soberly indicating points of vulnerability of the apartheid regime and strengths of the liberation forces that had received insufficient attention. This fresh evaluation inspired its cadres and also drew in many new people who believed that it was a viable way of launching a fresh assault against the apartheid regime.

In 1990, at the time of its unbanning, the ANC had unique prestige not because of the stature of Mandela alone, though that was an important factor, but because of its record in the struggle. There was powerful evidence of its willingness to throw everything into the struggle on a range of fronts, the sense that people had that the organisation was theirs because its leaders truly championed their cause, engaged the enemy in battle to advance their interests and went to jail, were tortured or died while driven by those goals.

The SACP was also held in high esteem at the time: people sang praise songs about the organisation and its leaders. Unlike most Communist Parties in the world, many of which changed their names because they considered the words “Communist Party” to be discredited at that time, the SACP enjoyed great prestige. Because of its standing among the oppressed the SACP did not need to consider changing its name, because it was then associated with heroism and sacrifice. The SACP tied much of its political action to that of the ANC, a longstanding alliance. But it came to include linking its fortunes to the rise of and support for Jacob Zuma.

The ANC is in disarray and its future in doubt not simply by virtue of electoral setbacks but because it no longer commands respect as a bearer of values that people can respect. The factors that combine to pose a threat to the very existence of the organisation, at least as one that inspires people with values that promise to benefit its core constituency, include:

Killing an organisation by killing a dream. In the potential demise of the ANC one is not seeing wounds inflicted by the DA or the EFF in the main, but self-inflicted wounds. These wounds amount to killing what the ANC represented in the minds of many, becoming something very different from that which had previously drawn people to the organisation. It has become a “fat cat” organisation, as well as one that can no longer be trusted to be what it had previously meant for the oppressed. Indeed it has come to be seen as one where its leaders look out for themselves at the expense of its core constituency, including at the cost of the lives of the most oppressed, as in Marikana.

Killing an organisation by rupturing the connection with its constituency. The organisation is no longer connected; it no longer has tight bonds with its core constituency, the poorest of the poor. This cannot simply be explained by Marxist categories like the embourgeoisement of the ANC or its succumbing to neoliberalism or accommodation with capital or representing the comprador bourgeoisie or similar Marxist or pseudo Marxist formulations. There may be such inclinations but we are talking about what Marxism cannot explain. People had been drawn into struggle often through seeing their parents humiliated under apartheid. The ANC and SACP took up their plight as their own and embodied their desire to be free as the very reason for their organisational existence. Today, in some instances, the ANC is party to humiliation of or is silent in the face of state violence against the people.

What we now have to explain is the rupturing of bonds of responsibility, solidarity, connection, care and many similar words that are not found or found in the same way in the language of Marxism. One can find assistance in feminist theology, feminism in general and various social scientists that care about the people they wish to help. One can also benefit from interrogating the emphasis that Rabbi Abraham Heschel, quoted at the beginning of this article, (who was a close comrade of Martin Luther King Jr.), places on indifference to the wrongs done to others or their humiliation.

The ANC may or may not have shifted ideologically. But more important is that the ANC no longer cares about the poor. It no longer cares about those who are more or less the same people as their own mothers and fathers from whose shoulders they previously pledged to lift the yoke of apartheid oppression and exploitation.

It is no longer moved by their plight. It is no longer affected by whether they sink or swim. They must now bear their pain without ANC support. Their pain is no longer that of the organisation, whose empathy and compassion had previously bound them together

Killing an organisation by killing compassion for the poor and oppressed. The words empathy, compassion and passion go beyond understanding theories of Marx, Lenin and Engels, though Marx does write with passion of his pain and outrage at the crushing of the Paris Commune, amongst other works (See the conclusion to +The Civil War in France). But Marxist teachings, per se, do not interrogate this subjective factor, that leads Marx, Engels and Lenin to care and feel for the poor and others not to do so. In fact, many contemporary Marxists, who may be very learned, may not see this as imposing any responsibility on themselves to act to remedy these wrongs. They may not see the need to join their fate with that of the oppressed. That requires a sense of connectedness, solidarity and responsibility in relation to the people who are still often landless or unemployed or harassed and evicted and arrested for no good cause.

Killing an organisation by stealing from the poor to further enrich the already rich. At an objective level, and flowing from no longer caring about the poor, the ANC has done worse. It has stolen from the poor to further enrich those who have recently become rich or others who have always been or have now become privileged. The level of betrayal that this comprises is another of the blows that it has inflicted on its constituency.

Killing an organisation by rupturing the trust that bound it to communities. People loved the ANC. It was their one great love that competed with no other love and the great leaders clearly loved the people whom they served: yes, served not in the discredited clichéd sense of “public service”, which really means personal benefit and enrichment.

Killing an organisation by making common cause with previous apartheid operatives. In order to settle scores with those opposing the current looting and violence, the present leadership of the ANC has not hesitated to make common cause with former apartheid operatives, like General Berning Mthandazo Ntlemeza, head of the Hawks, and suspended head of Crime Intelligence, General Richard Mdluli.

The ANC may not die. The Congress of India continues to exist, but is a shadow of its former self, lacking integrity and vision. That may be the fate of the ANC. It is said by some that this is the fate of all liberation movements after 20 years in power. But nothing is inevitable in politics and this need not have happened. It is possible, though unlikely that the ANC will recover its previous standing. My belief is that it has gone too far along a route that is anti-people and tramples on the gains that the organisation itself inaugurated.

The democratic project now needs to be driven by forces beyond (but not necessarily identified as antagonistic to the ANC). That requires building new organisations or reviving the role of those that already exist. It means building alliances, sometimes between those who have never previously been bound together. It requires a broad vision that can bring such a coalition of forces together and capture widespread support, in order to rescue and revive our democratic and emancipatory promise.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a former political prisoner for activities in the ANC-led liberation struggle. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. His most recent book is Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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