ANC at 107: history, values and strategies

14th January 2019 By: Raymond Suttner

ANC at 107: history, values and strategies

Photo by: Madelene Cronje/New Frame

The ANC is very preoccupied with its history and it has been drawn on for different reasons at different times. During the freedom struggle that history of resistance was transmitted to successive generations, in order to inspire others to redouble their efforts to overthrow the apartheid regime. In the present, it is drawn on as a proud past with which the present ANC attempts to join itself and depict what it does as continuing to observe and practise the liberation legacy. 

At the same time key elements of this very past on which the ANC draws for legitimacy, are contested, because various versions of history allegedly or do in fact combine mythology and reality.  Aspects of this history, the role of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), for example, are seen as heroic by some but as pathetic or very insignificant by others. 

Many of us, who have been in the ANC cherish powerful memories.  To join the liberation struggle, led then by the ANC was a source of pride.  I considered it an honour to be part of the efforts to free South Africa. 

In writing this I know that there are many who will read my sense of privilege at having this link, with mirth, knowing as we all do that the predominant image of the ANC today is not that of an organisation that inspires a sense of honour or admiration.  It is seen by many, on the basis of what has happened in the last few years, as a bunch of thieves, many of whom have robbed the poor to feed themselves.

Those who know the ANC only in the post 1994 period have witnessed cynical pursuit of high office and wealth and little evidence of “selfless service,” that the organisation proclaimed as its characteristic on its centenary in 2012.  The selfish use of the ANC for gain, especially in its recent history, cannot be denied. 

But that quality was not what moved everyone, who joined the ANC over time and even in the most shameful and shameless periods of the leadership of Jacob Zuma. Even though some may have been gorging themselves or killing other comrades, at the same time there remained others who tried to find a way of defending the values of old, in the difficult conditions they encountered. They believed it was wrong to desert the organisation, especially in these difficult and dishonourable times. They believed that there was a sacred duty, especially then, to do what one could to steer the ANC back to what was seen as its former greatness.

We need to recognise that there has been abuse in the time of heroism and also dedication to humanistic values in the time of sleaze.  The very places where heroism occurs, are often isolated and out of sight.  By definition such locations provide opportunity for both heroic and abusive acts.  Take for example, if it occurred in an underground unit or cell.  Reporting this to the police would probably have exposed the entire operation to the apartheid regime.  The very secrecy of the activities provided possibilities for abuse, whose extent one does not know.

But we also need to acknowledge that very many people, in the struggle at various times, never practised abuse or dishonesty but did in fact serve the organisation with dedication and without thought of personal gain. 

In fact, it should be recalled that prior to 1990 there were not many opportunities for personal gain, though some did find ways of accessing more resources than others. But the predominant experience was that of danger and if captured, the likelihood of torture and possibly death.

Romanticising and essentialising the character of the ANC

Have things suddenly declined?  This raises the question of romanticising the ANC before Zuma, or the ANC that many of us “knew” or say or think “we knew”.  This is often part of the discourse of veterans who have wanted to restore the organisation to its former greatness and rescue it, especially during the Zuma period, from ignominy.  The assumption often is that all was well before a “wrong turning” was taken and that we need to retrace our steps and get back onto the ethical or noble highway that the ANC was “destined” to take before this diversion.

This is often linked to attributing an essential quality to the ANC or certain traits that signify what it means to be part of “Congress” and its allies.  Deriving from this, many say that one or other practice is “alien” to the ANC or “unANC”. 

In fact, as with any practice that is essentialised, fixed and unchanging qualities are attributed to a people or in this case an organisation. We may not immediately observe the qualities, but they are supposedly there, possibly underneath the surface, temporarily buried, but waiting for anyone to (re)discover, should s/he search hard enough and in good faith and with dedication. 

And as with all cases of static application of characteristics to organisations that allegedly do not change over time, what is seen as essential qualities in fact differ, for there is more than one interpretation of what ANC membership means.  Equally, those condemned as engaging in “alien” practices also differ in their character and practices.  Political conditions change and what is stigmatised changes, depending on who is making the claim or condemnation and for what reasons.

What one knew and did not know

All of us who were in the struggle have to recognise that even if we are in complete good faith and have no intention of romanticising or demonising, that there were many aspects of the ANC that we did not “know”, being located in different places, and not knowing everything that was happening at any one time. I personally, did not believe the allegations of torture in camps like Quatro, in Angola.  I thought this was being spread by people who were enemies of the ANC and put up to it by the regime or its allies in right wing governments.

About 20 years ago, a man I knew had been in the struggle, approached me and started to talk about his experiences. It turned out that he had been arrested and tortured in Quatro.  He had no idea why he had been arrested and did not know till the day he died, about 5 years ago.  He had been so loyal that when his wife asked him where he had been, while detained, he said that he had been on a secret mission.

I had limited acquaintance with one or two of the people who he said had tortured him and one of these was an ambassador who had been posted to more than one place, rewarded after his days as a torturer.  This reinforced a growing sense that I came to have that there was a measure of impunity that some people enjoyed, even if they had engaged in misconduct. 

Also, I may be wrong, but it became my impression that where someone who was well known may have been discovered to be a spy or have done one or other wrong thing, if this were a prominent leader, the organisation may have chosen to hush up the matter. The reasoning appears to have been that the damage caused by exposure was greater for the organisation than may have arisen from keeping the matter as an organisational secret.

But wrongdoing of one or other type was not the whole of what it meant for every person to be in the ANC.  For myself, this was outside my experience as a mainly isolated underground worker and later a prominent figure in the UDF.  I had never seen abuse and covering up of abuse in that experience, though I heard of one or two cases and came to learn more of it later, after unbanning in 1990. 

MK and memory of the struggle

There was and may remain a mythology around MK.  People like me, credited the people’s army, as we called it, with a capacity that was not theirs, a military power it did not possess.

When negotiations started, I empathised with MK people and others who felt that we should not have talked or made the concessions that were made and have fought it out.  Nevertheless, because I was then in the internal leadership that initially linked up with the national executive from Lusaka, I was tasked to write in support of negotiations and an article in City Press, in defence of the Pretoria Minute-suspending armed action, even though I had no part in that decision and had doubts about it.  It had been a unilateral decision by the negotiators without consultation with the internal leadership, and MK. (I am not sure that it passed through the National Executive Committee either, but I do not have records).

Even though we credited MK with greater power than it in fact possessed, the mythological element was itself a “weapon” in the struggle.  When MK first attacked police stations and military bases like Voortrekkerhoogte or blew up SASOL it was a powerful boost to the morale of the oppressed people and all who were active or sympathised with the struggle.

Black people were not allowed to bear arms or receive military training yet there they were, highly trained guerrilla fighters, attacking not simply councillors or other civilian collaborators but the very military and police forces of the apartheid regime!  That made many people very proud.

We had this exaggerated evaluation of its capacity to defeat the enemy on the battleground. Many of us had no idea of the limits of MK as a military force.

But Nelson Mandela was very clear that we did not confront “an enemy on its knees”.  Yet these and other attacks had had a positive effect on people’s consciousness and morale. It inspired many of us to work even harder to overthrow the regime.

To avoid romanticism does not mean that we do not recognise that the ANC of the past was very different from that of today.  And it did have noble and heroic qualities (and also situations where abuse occurred).  The abuse does not erase that which was positive and that may still inspire people to a life of service today.

There are enduring qualities of the ANC that need to be recovered as part of a broader legacy of freedom

Even though it may be naïve there is a school of thought that believes that it is best to correct things from the inside.  Such people have stayed in the organisation to struggle for a clean ANC. And they have done their best and made significant progress, especially since the removal of Zuma, in redirecting the organisation in its capacity as government, towards goals that are more in keeping with an ANC pledged to serve the people of South Africa, especially the poor. 

Many of these are veterans of the struggle.  Some may have been as focused on recovering values as they were on ensuring that these campaigns fed into the election of Cyril Ramaphosa in 2017. In other words, the values to which they wanted to return were understood to be embodied in the candidature of Ramaphosa. (I received private messages from one person on social media, relating to the efforts of the veterans but the same person also sent me a campaign sticker relating to CR2017).  There is nothing wrong with campaigning for an individual, but it cannot be a substitute for grappling and arguing over the qualities the organisation ought to embrace.

The truth is that there are many who want to restore the ANC to its “former character”, where it won the respect of many because its leaders and members sacrificed a great deal and, in many cases, their personal freedom or in some cases, their lives.  While this may not have been all that the ANC was, it is an important part of what it has been and meant in terms of instilling ethical values in the course of its history.

We need to recognise this ambiguity in the celebrations around the ANC’s 107th anniversary, that some do see it as an opportunity to recommit themselves to values that were very powerful in the process of achieving democracy in South Africa.  It was these efforts that played a key role in making it possible to achieve important gains after 1994, despite the setbacks that some of these advances have encountered.  No matter what has happened, there are values that some still hold dear and these sustained people over very difficult times.

At the same time, there are those who will be just as or even more prominent in the celebrations who may well use similar words about sacrifice and selflessness, who have their minds focused on what is good for themselves.  Self-determination has come to mean for them, realising themselves plentifully as individuals, rather than liberating the people as a whole and making people’s lives better in a much more substantial way than has been the case in these last 25 years.

Consequently, the same values are being drawn on -because they are still powerful and contain strong elements of truth- by quite different forces.  That does not cancel out the validity of the values. What it does mean, however, is that those who are in fact dedicated to achieving freedom for all and not simply personal gain, need to engage in struggle to ensure the triumph of the progressive approach. 

Where we draw on that history in debates and discussions we need to struggle for the dominance of the ethically-based version, for freedom without ethics cannot be the type of freedom that safeguards and builds an emancipatory project, where the freedom of all continually grows.

At the same time, we also need to understand that when the ANC of the past acted in support of such values it did so on the basis of an analysis of the society on which it acted.  It drew lines demarcating where the forces for liberation stood, and what it had to remove or rectify.  It formulated strategies and tactics based on an overall understanding of different forces at work.  That type of analysis has been decimated.   The highpoint of the ANC’s anniversary has been the release of a manifesto for the ANC in its capacity as government, to implement if re-elected. There is no analysis offered to the public at large, identifying roles for a range of actors, located in a number of different places.  That is what we used to carefully read in the January 8 statements of the past.  Times have changed and we are no longer in an insurrectionary situation. But there still needs to be a strategic vision that identifies not only what government should do, but what tasks, all those with allegiance to the ANC and beyond that, those who pursue democratic goals in a number of sites of society, should undertake.  Without such a strategic vision, the values that sustained the freedom struggle in the past cannot be recovered and implemented in the present.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg 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 and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner