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The ANC’s representational crises

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The ANC’s representational crises

Photo by Madelene Cronje/New Frame
Raymond Suttner

23rd April 2019

By: Raymond Suttner

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The ANC led by President Cyril Ramaphosa may secure a majority or increase its share of the votes in May 8’s national elections. However, we are faced with a problem whatever these results may be. If it is again chosen to lead the country, on its own or in coalition, the ANC will not enjoy widespread trust or increased credibility as the country’s leadership, because its reputation and standing are in tatters.   The crisis of trust is applicable to all three of the strongest parties, though the reasons are not identical.

The way in which the ANC has pitched its election campaign has been around imagery, especially that of the president, and to some extent its history and its claim to reliability.  It suggests that the ANC, having governed for 25 years has demonstrated that it has what it takes to continue governing, and thereby better people’s lives even further than it claims has been done, according to its record as ruling party. It ought to know, however, that what confidence there was in the ANC, for many, many years, has taken a very serious dent.  It does not appear to have taken adequate steps to encompass this in its thinking and the way it presents and represents itself to the voting public.  

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The ANC is experiencing a crisis of representation in at least three senses.  In the first sense, there is a crisis of credibility, trust and integrity. Those who do still vote for the ANC may, nevertheless, not be convinced that the organisation will implement what it claims it will do.  This is what its record, at least over the last 10 years strongly suggests.

The second sense in which there is a crisis of representation relates to the notion of re-presentation, in that the representative ought, ideally, to “stand in” for those who have elected them and re-present what they would want articulated in places like parliament, in other words, what the constituents would do if they were themselves present.  Because the ANC no longer carries out its mandates and pledges, it can also not be relied on to stand in for or re-present the people who elect them.

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The third element of the representational crisis is what the ANC itself signifies, the cultural meanings associated with the organisation that are diffused and understood about the organisation. In earlier days the ANC and its supporters shared an understanding of the symbolism of raising the colours of the ANC in a period of illegality as evoking defiance, freedom and respect for all human beings. Erecting the flag, illegally, during the struggle constituted a blow wielded for a liberated South Africa. 

The representation of the ANC as bearing such meanings, is no longer credible. All the attempts to bind the imagery of the ANC today with what it has been in its heroic periods fall flat.  There is a gap between that representation and the reality we have come to know in recent times.

What are the factors that ground the representational crises?

What is articulated here may not exhaust the broader crises of representation the organisation is facing.

Experience as government is presented by the ANC as one of the reasons why the organisation should be re-elected.  But experience does not count in the ANC’s favour. Paradoxically, every element of its campaign thrust works as much against as for the ANC.  The long duration of ANC rule would suggest experienced hands.  But the public has come to know, in recent years, that long experience has also provided opportunities to manipulate institutions in order to benefit individuals, rather than the public at large. Consequently, the appeal to the length of time that the ANC has spent at the helm is not something that convinces many people that its rule has been good for the country and that it counts in the organisation’s favour. 

Certainly, in the abstract, experience is a very important factor. It would normally work in its favour, that it does not have to learn processes of governing afresh and possesses institutional memory.  But claims that it is trustworthy evoke justified cynicism.  This is not a generic cynicism about politicians, but what people have come to know about the party that many once trusted.

Reliability, ethics and trust. The ANC has difficulty convincing the voter of its ethical reliability and trustworthiness.  This claim has been cut to shreds over the last ten years, reinforced in granular detail in evidence before the (Deputy Chief Justice Raymond) Zondo commission into state capture and in the Sars commission led by retired judge Robert Nugent as well as ongoing investigative work on top officials like ANC Secretary-General, Ace Magashule, but also other top leaders, including to some extent Ramaphosa himself.  There are very few people at the top who have not faced accusations of wrongdoing, some of which may well prove to be true and lead to charges and imprisonment.

This was not always the case, but it is so today.  How does the ANC represent itself to the world as an ethical force when it will have great difficulty removing the stigma of accommodating a range of people, at all levels, who are allegedly part of criminal conspiracies?

Heroic past does not resonate today.  The ANC operates in a situation where it cannot easily draw on its heroic past insofar as the public is very well acquainted with actions in its recent history that directly contradict what was heroic or presented as heroic in that past.  The attempt to connect the ANC of today and the recent past with the heroic figures and actions of earlier periods does not hold much water.  It instead invites unfavourable comparisons, that show the present leadership as seedy and self-interested.

So great have its misdeeds been in recent times that the ANC is now disembodied and no longer connected with that from which it came.  It cannot point to a recent past where the living actors of today played honourable roles, nor can it realistically connect itself with the heroic past which once earned the ANC loyalty.

The ANC of the heroic era of struggle against apartheid had a strong connection with the masses, and families prayed for the leaders in exile and in prison.   They earned broad support. They had this connection because the leaders emerged from communities like their own, knew their plight and were seen to act selflessly.

The ANC of today is out of touch with grassroots living conditions.  25 years of post-apartheid South Africa have seen many ANC leaders lose much of the previous markers, notably their connections with the localities from which they came. This is not purely because of graft but also because of lifestyle changes, where some ANC leaders, including the president, have become very wealthy.  Indeed, in many cases they may now be more comfortable with wealthy white people than those in townships.  I am not thereby suggesting that becoming wealthy necessarily entails being out of touch with the poor. But where one changes one’s lifestyle and place of living it may require some effort to remain in touch with the conditions from which one has originated.

Perhaps failure to make this effort accounts for the unreflective remarks of President Ramaphosa, his being “shocked” about the everyday experiences of black people in South Africa, notably when he was delayed in a train for three hours, a common experience for commuters.  Likewise, his “shock” or “surprise” at the squalid living conditions of people in Alexandra township and the absence of water and electricity in many townships in Limpopo province.  All of this signifies that the president is out of touch with conditions that prevail amongst what used to be the ANC’s base constituency.

No vision or coherent ideological glue.  Part of the disconnect between the ANC and the masses is that it no longer offers a vision that can be embraced in the thinking and understandings of the masses. It does not have a distinct message and much of what it advances as its “vision” derives from what are claimed to be results from opinion polls as in its notorious xenophobic messaging. That undermines decades of ANC solidarity with the rest of Africa and the very concept of universal freedom. It may win some votes, but it also evokes contempt.

The immediate post-apartheid years were suffused with serious strategic thinking. The Mbeki period was very ideological.  The relatively limited internal debate was offset by the critique then offered by Cosatu on macro-economic policy and to a significant extent, by the SACP of the time.

Having an ideological content is not to be confused with intellectualism or intellectual elitism, it is a matter of having a message that resonates with people who experience life in a particular way and relates to how that life can be changed for the better.

Such an ideological vision is knowledge derived from listening to the masses. This listening is not the same as conducting opinion polls but listening in the context of organising, connecting with the problems people voice about the conditions of their lives and trying to find the actual causes in order to remedy these. Regrettably the cause of some of the hardships that people now face, relate to ANC malgovernance or misappropriation of funds. 

ANC failure to take responsibility.  The ANC will never regain trust unless it admits its own responsibility-in full, however grave the misdeeds that have to be acknowledged. By trying to deflect this, with cowardice, onto immigrants, they repudiate the long traditions of a movement that cared about the marginalised. 

The ANC no longer engages with communities in a patient and careful way, but flies in and out of areas which have poor facilities, primarily, if at all, at election time.  Consequently, it cannot develop a convincing message, based on a considered evaluation of what the people experience in their lives.

People who vote for the ANC may do so not because they believe it will be faithful to its mandate or address their aspirations but merely because the alternative parties evoke even less appeal and trust.  This is part of the phenomenon of “choiceless democracy” and this is the situation in which we find ourselves today.  (See: Raymond Suttner https://www.polity.org.za/article/reclaiming-political-agency-in-a-time-of-choiceless-democracy-2019-04-03/searchString:Raymond+Suttner).

Representational crisis as crisis of organisational identity.

The crisis of representation manifests also in a cultural sense, where the identity of the ANC is blurred.  In a cultural sense the word representation is used to refer to how we make sense of things, and how these become shared meanings. 

Stuart Hall argues that nothing has a given or innate meaning but that culturally, we learn to understand that some colour or structure or other things signify a particular meaning and those who share a culture have certain shared “maps of meaning”, though they may still differ over some of the meanings of that culture.  (See Stuart Hall, “Introduction” in  Stuart Hall (ed) Representation. Sage, London, 1997, amongst other works).  Applied to the ANC, there is no inherent or natural quality attached to the organisation. We have to give it meanings and both leaders and followers do this. 

The ANC as an organisation once signified certain qualities through its own practices of representation. Some have attempted to contain this process and to freeze the meaning of the ANC with phrases like “alien to the ANC” or “unANC”.  These are attempts to provide constant and permanent meanings -for what is inevitably contested, for a range of reasons.

But it does not work.  Just as colours at a robot signify go, stop or pause, the colours yellow, green and black signified the ANC and the ANC signified an organisation that represented freedom and an alternative to the apartheid regime.  When people “raised the colours” at a funeral during the apartheid period, this signified identification with the ANC and defiance of the grinding force and oppression of apartheid.  The ANC’s clenched fist (shared in various ways by other organisations) represented unity and power, power to the people as in the slogan “Amandla Ngawethu!”  These were a range of signifiers whose meaning was broadly part of a nexus between the ANC and its support base, shared meanings that held them together.

For representations to work they require a broadly shared meaning, even if there are differences and arguments within that common understanding.  Thus, when the ANC was illegal there was a shared understanding of what the organisation represented in general terms as a democratic alternative to the apartheid regime, though many believed that it should aim at this or that way of realising democracy rather than another.  There were shared maps of meaning, which no longer hold.  The colours green, gold and black still means the ANC but are not identified with specific qualities that are worthy of support, just as the clenched fist and crying “Amandla!”, evoke cynicism, when performed by some of the figures who are leaders but also seen as rogues.

The ANC faces multiple crises.  The various layers of representation signify facets of that crisis and indicate a breakdown in what used to be an agreed understanding between the ANC and its core support base and membership.  Whether it can ever regain the support it used to enjoy is doubtful.  It is important that those sections of the public who cherish freedom should not be fixated on existing parties.  While existing parties may still play some part in rebuilding democracy, it is important to also think beyond these, and see non-party formations as also being ways of setting the country on an emancipatory path.

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at UNISA.  He 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 raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner

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