6 January 2012


On January 8, the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling party, will celebrate its centenary in the dusty town of Bloemfontein, where it was founded. What are its achievements, its failures and its future in post-apartheid South Africa?

When the ANC was launched in 1912, it was as a response by African educated elites to the creation in 1910 of the Union of South Africa: this new pact between Afrikaners and British settlers signed the reconciliation of white people on the back of indigenous Africans after the Boer war and entrenched racial discrimination. In that context, the ANC's goal was to unite African people behind the objective of achieving a non-racial South Africa.

After decades of exile, underground struggle and mass mobilization, the ANC's efforts finally paid off, and the apartheid regime was abolished. Accordingly, South Africa’s 1994 first non-racial elections ushered in a new era. 

This new post-apartheid, non-racial and democratic South Africa is, in itself, the ANC's major achievement. South Africa now has an inclusive political system, with one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, free and fair elections and legalist institutions. Racial groups which used to be manipulated against each other now coexist under the same laws: the race war hasn’t occurred. 

The post-apartheid regime has constructed its own set of unifying narratives, the most powerful one being Nelson Mandela, and South Africa is now stabilized. In the early 1990s, when there was uncertainty about the future of South Africa and fears of a white extreme right-wing coup, this could not be taken for granted. 

So the ANC is firmly in power, with more than 60% of the vote, and even if its support seems to erode, its electoral prospects are good in the absence of any credible challenger for the black African vote. However, the ANC is now going through an identity crisis and is facing organizational and moral challenges.

First, the ANC's political culture is undergoing traumatic changes. The party’s historical political culture, born out of democratic centralism and the underground experience, emphasizes party discipline and unity. This iron discipline allowed the party to close ranks during the anti-apartheid struggle but appears to be difficult to maintain today. 

In the new democratic South Africa, it is equally hard to justify a lack of transparency over internal affairs. An influx of younger members is shaking the party’s traditions. The ANC finds itself split between the worst of both worlds: internal differences are still emphatically denied, but behind the scenes, factionalism and indiscipline are undermining the party. The emergence of Julius Malema is only a symptom. 

The party's worst enemies are greed and a lack of vision. Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa and the ANC, had many well-known faults but he had a vision for the country. His fights against the ANC's partners the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which in the form of the Triple Alliance formally governs South Africa, were over political and economic directions. Today, one would struggle to understand what the Zuma government stands for. It seems that competition for tenders within the new elite has supplanted ideology as the main bone of contention. Factional struggles unfolding between the Zuma, the Motlanthe, the Sexwale, the Phosa or the Mbalula of this world are only marginally related to ideological differences. Instead, they mainly revolve around government positions and business interests.

When ANC delegates gather in Bloemfontein and celebrate the party’s heroic past, they should take one minute to ask themselves: what is the ANC's vision for South Africa for the next 100 years? If this question is left unanswered, the ANC will turn itself into a mere vehicle for the aspirations of a powerful new ruling class located at the intersection of politics and economics. In that case, South Africa’s best democratic prospects may lie in a fundamental change in party politics. 

The ANC has always been something of a coalition. Both left and right within the ANC have regularly threatened to split the Triple Alliance, as did the breakaway Congress of the People party in 2008. But attempts have thus far failed. A more fundamental split might leave South Africa with two mass political parties with credible struggle credentials, a left-wing one and a centre-one, competing for the black African vote. Because of its very success the ANC as we know it may have to commit the ultimate sacrifice in order to complete its mission and guarantee South Africa's, and the ANC's, remarkable democratic achievement.

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Also read:

South Africa: Outcry and Protest
Herman Wasserman and Michelle Solomon, The World Today, January 2012