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The ANC – a party in decline

In this video clip, Centre for Policy Studies senior research associate Aubrey Matshiqi speaks with Polity's Brad Dubbelman about the history and future prospects of the ANC. Camerawork & Editing: Darlene Creamer

10th December 2010

By: Aubrey Matshiqi


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The African National Congress (ANC) turns 99 next month.



This means that, on January 8, 2012, South Africa’s ruling party will be celebrating its 100th birthday. This is an important milestone by any standard. This also means that the ANC, as a historical force, has lived through and shaped some of the most important events in South African history. The ANC was a direct product of the responses of the African majority to colonial conquest and, during apartheid, it benefited from a judicious selection of tactical and revolutionary approaches, the dynamics of the Cold War, fraternal relations with other liberation movements and the heroism of anti-apartheid forces to become the most dominant political force in South Africa. And with its dominance and revolutionary credentials came the expectation that it would represent, and translate into reality, the aspirations of those who were oppressed by white minority apartheid governments.



Has the ANC delivered on this expectation, given the fact that the hopes of the oppressed in South Africa later became the hope for political and economic freedom for millions outside our country? It is for this reason that the ANC is the only liberation movement and political party in the world that has produced two Nobel laureates and Nelson Mandela has become a global icon for freedom. And it is for these reasons that, with the advent of democracy in 1994, there was the expectation that postapartheid South Africa would become the conscience of the world.


But how should we judge the ANC? Broadly speaking, the ANC should be judged against the following goals:


• Has the party succeeded in uniting the people of this country?
• Is the dream of a better life becoming a reality for all South Africans?
• Is the quality of our democratic experience improving?


Whether your contention is that the postapartheid democratic project is failing or succeeding, there is plenty of evidence to support either view. Therefore, the best answers are those that are nuanced enough to appreciate the complexities of our postapartheid democratic order. To argue that the ANC is either an unblemished success or an unmitigated failure is to miss the point because the ANC is neither.


Despite this, there is no doubt that the change in the relationship between the ANC and State power has changed many of its members and leaders in ways that are a betrayal of the principles which drove the struggle against apartheid. The relationship between money and internal ANC politics has become one of the defining features of battles for leadership positions in both the party and government.


Obviously, a divided ruling party with only 16 years of experience in governance cannot deliver optimally. In other words, the ANC is a party in decline for all the wrong reasons. The subjective interests of too many of its members have become more important than the national interest. In a book chapter, I argued that: “Some commentators may be motivated by the racist belief that dictators and one-party States are part of the DNA of African politics. But this should not detract from the fact that democratic deficits could emerge in South Africa because internal contradictions in the ruling party may . . . undermine the separation between State and party, harming the quality of the democratic experience of ordinary citizens.”


The harm, however, seems to be happening more at the level of the substantive than the procedural. In other words, our democracy at the moment is delivering less than it promises with regard to changing the lot of the poor, the working class and the unemployed class. The challenge this presupposes cannot be met by a divided ruling party and society. In other words, without unity, it will be difficult for the country to achieve its developmental goals.


The launch of the framework for a new economic growth path by Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel will test the country in this regard. While it is not possible to agree on everything, a common economic and developmental vision will not be possible unless we succeed in transcending the race and class cleavages that are still part of South African life. This we must do in addition to transcending the vested interests of powerful policy communities in this country. Success in this regard will depend on leadership – that of the ANC and President Jacob Zuma.


Because the ANC will probably remain a party in decline in the period spanning the next four general elections – unless it achieves a change in the content of internal political and leadership battles – the best we can hope for is an impasse equilibrium in the state between those who are driven by values of delivery and those whose interests are defined by the values of politics. Otherwise, collapse is the alternative.


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