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Leadership in Question part 4 – Can the ANC recover and lead a democratic project? Can and should the ANC even survive?


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Leadership in Question part 4 – Can the ANC recover and lead a democratic project? Can and should the ANC even survive?

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje/New Frame
Raymond Suttner

7th December 2020

By: Raymond Suttner


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At the moment there is a lot of soul searching under way among ANC stalwarts with whom I am in contact, although I am not part of any of these groups. There seem to be a number of WhatsApp groups who share their concerns and circulate the articles they read within their networks of comrades who were part of the Struggle, mainly at an earlier stage. Most remain ANC members.

Some of these groups are fairly formally organised, as with the ANC stalwarts, others are informal networks of those who were once involved and often made many great sacrifices, but now fear that the ANC has lost its capacity and moral compass or that it will never recover its former self (or what is a romanticised version of what that past was). (Earlier parts of this series can be found here  and and ).


Speaking of romanticisation is not intended to suggest that the ANC has always been a version of what we have seen in recent years. The ANC and its allies once embodied truly heroic qualities that won the admiration of very many people inside the country and in solidarity movements. That ought to be respected. But that heroism and moral integrity coexisted with some practices that were unworthy and may be one of the reasons why we find the decadence of the present.

Reluctance to break with the ANC


For many people whose lives have been devoted to liberation and where the ANC has been the primary vehicle for realising this aspiration, there is a reluctance to write off the organisation. I understand and do not have contempt for any person who decides to work within in order to change the ANC or to try to return it to the path where it was once a moral beacon for many. I was one of those who saw the ANC as the leading force in the struggle to create a democratic and transformed South Africa that would benefit all. I do believe that very many people did represent qualities that can rightly be called that of a freedom fighter and there are many aspects of the earlier ANC, whatever the romanticisation there may be, that are worthy of celebration.

Where I choose not to participate in organised forms as with the stalwarts, it does not relate to any sense of contempt or strong disagreement with their criticisms over the state of the ANC under Jacob Zuma and to some extent today. My unwillingness to participate relates to how the ANC past and present is analysed or presented. During the Zuma period I did not agree with what appeared to be an assumption that if Zuma were removed the ANC could return to some type of golden past. Or it has been framed as a call for “self-correction” that implies that the ANC has an intrinsic quality to which it must be returned after various aberrations. That capacity of the ANC to self-correct is said to be something on which we should rely and to lead to our aspirations being realised. In some cases, the self-correction required was in fact the CR17 campaign to elect Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC, and later, state president, insofar as the same people who advanced the stalwart critique often also sent out material advancing Ramaphosa as the key to remedying the problems. Judging from the composition of the stalwarts, some may well have preferred a return to Thabo Mbeki had that been possible, but for the moment they rest their hopes in Ramaphosa being allowed to be free to remedy the obstacles in the way of the ANC returning to its previous self and the pilfering of state resources being ended.

I do believe that the ANC and liberation Struggle represented qualities that drew many people who were willing to offer their own wellbeing and lives in order to make South Africa free. But I have come to know, that even earlier - in the more heroic period - all was not well. It is true that the ANC included moral giants like Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Ruth First and others and there were also less well-known people who had no reason to join other than to offer their lives in order to secure freedom.

But the honourable past was marred by some serious flaws, notoriously the abuses committed in some MK camps. Working inside the country, I did not initially believe the stories about Quadro but there was no way of denying this, in what came to be documented, but also, in my own experience when a man came to see me and related his own experiences. What shocked me about the testimony of this person, was that some of those who had tortured him were still in good standing in the ANC, some holding fairly prestigious positions and continuing to be promoted to other ones. This man remained a loyal ANC member, so much so that he explained his absence to his wife as due to being sent on a special mission. (I also knew that Pallo Jordan had been detained at one point, for reasons that were not known or publicly advanced).

In my own experience I have reason to celebrate much that the ANC did but also heard of that which I did not know, that meant one had to qualify the meanings of the liberation experience, under ANC leadership.

Nevertheless, in my own experience I remained a loyal member of the ANC and SACP until the Zuma rape trial of 2006. I had specific reasons to break related to the Zuma rape trial and corruption and my disagreement was initially voiced against the actions of the SACP. (See Raymond Suttner, Inside Apartheid’s Prison, 2 ed, Jacana Media, 2017, new introduction, and I believe I was right, but I do not claim to have foreseen what others did not envisage in the general decline of the ANC and its allies. Nor do I go along with any theory of the inevitability of liberation movements becoming decadent and corrupt- that some claim they “always knew”.

There is no intrinsic virtue in calling it quits and breaking some time back, as I did. There are some who “always knew” that things would turn out badly, because of the tendencies of nationalist movements or their class character. But tendencies are not inevitabilities, so I still believe, whatever blemishes there may have been that things need not have turned out the way they have.

The question today, if I am correct in saying that tendencies do not inevitably unfold, is whether the current tendencies can be reversed. Can the ANC recover and live out its slogan “ANC lives, ANC leads!” My belief is that we are experiencing a period where the ANC has no real grounding in its supposed constituency. Reference was recently made to the importance of the ANC securing 1.4 million members. ( But the question is what has led those people to become members and what do they see themselves gaining from membership. The answer to that question may already be known and it dooms the ANC to no longer being a serious democratic or liberatory or transformative force. Every week we hear of some new ANC figure, from the Zuma or Ramaphosa camp, having creamed off resources for themselves.

It is also well known that the ANC contains within it a killing machine, where members are murdered to secure positions. (See Greg Ardé, War Party: How the ANC's political killings are breaking South Africa. Tafelberg 2020.) We live in a period of widespread poverty, indeed starvation before and increasingly so after Covid-19. Holding a position even near the bottom of the pile in the ANC often secures a salary or sometimes more.

Can the ANC recover?

That being said, can the ANC recover, or should it survive? For the moment, it is possible that the ANC may remain the ruling party and continue to lead government in South Africa. This is partly to do with the weakness of alternative political parties and a fear that some gains that the ANC has brought, like social grants, may not survive if another political party rules the country. That fear may be unfounded, but surveys have shown that this is a fairly widespread belief, and it may go for other aspects of welfare, despite the dismal record of the ANC in government in recent years, where many of the resources required for improving the lives of the poor and marginalised have been diverted to the pockets of leaders and others close to the leadership through corrupt practices.

As indicated previously and in the commentary of others, neither the DA nor the EFF offer alternatives that evoke confidence in terms of stability and remedying continued inequality and violence. (See and ).

Even though the ANC is now generally pursuing immoral and amoral practices, with indifference towards the suffering of the many, until a new formation is created there is no way that that this can be remedied. It is important that various players who can form part of such a compact for reconstruction look around at others who have this concern and start to consider ways of uniting, even if they have shared, and also distinct, goals that need to be part of any unity. One of the few forces that has the capacity to act with effectiveness is business - big and small - and it needs to consider where it wants the country to go and how it can demonstrate sensitivity towards those who have not benefited in times where profits have often soared. How do the poor build organisations they trust and unite with one another beyond the limited number of mass-based social movements, but also join with business by virtue of its power and also a range of other sectors that have sometimes been important in liberation history, notably the faith-based sectors?

The answer to these questions is not easy, for they are likely to be derived - over time - from processes of consultation. It is important that all forces who have an interest in cleaning up the state and freeing the country from violence and corruption find one another and listen to each other’s concerns and work towards a new compact. It cannot be forecasted precisely what the compact will contain and who its bearers will be. But that work needs to begin.

Professor Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor at the Centre for the advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth. Suttner served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing to write memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the periods through which he has lived.


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