Africa’s oldest liberation movement, which has enjoyed overwhelming political hegemony and electoral success since South Africa’s democratic breakthrough in 1994, is in deep trouble.
Crucially, this is not mainly as a result of the more recent domestic manifestations of the ever-widening crisis of capitalism nor of any kind of immediate threat to its 18-year hold on political power.
It is rather more simple — the “big happy family” whose members range from crypto-communists to die-hard capitalists, from ethno-nationalist chauvinists to cosmopolitan liberals — is beginning to break apart because there remains little to hold the heterogeneous clan together anymore.
There have always been factional battles raging within the ANC: the fights between the “radical” Youth League and the “conservative” older generation in the 1940s; the open warfare between the “black nationalists” and the multi-racial “Congress” in the 1950s; the regular stand-offs between the “workerists” and the “nationalists” in the 1970s and early to mid ’80s; and the skirmishes between the “exiles” and “internals” in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
However, none of these family fisticuffs ever resulted in a serious, sustained threat to the political, ideological or organisational integrity of the ANC, precisely because the anti-apartheid glue held, and healed, fast.
No surprise then, that after the political defeat of apartheid in 1994 and the ANC’s ascension to state power, that glue became increasingly obsolete.
With the rapid disappearance of the overarching historical “ties that bind”, internal battles began to exhibit much more explicit ideological, personal, racial, state power and occasionally ethnic characteristics.
Despite their often intense and public nature, these post-1994 battles did not result in the disintegration of the ANC family, mainly due to the fact that a new glue had been manufactured — obsequious loyalty to, and centralisation of power around, a “big man”.
At first it was Nelson Mandela, whose manipulated iconisation demanded general quiescence in the face of the neoliberal policies that were a spit in the face to the ANC’s mass constituency.
Then came Thabo Mbeki, whose Machiavellianism and personal insecurities required unquestioned obedience and self-censorship.
What then appeared to many to be a long-awaited internal revolt by ANC members at the 2007 Polokwane Conference (in the name of a mythical “reclamation of the ANC”) has turned out to be the latest instalment of the same “big man” politics, in the form of Jacob Zuma.
The problem for Zuma, however, is that, unlike that of his predecessors, his rise to the ANC throne has taken place in a context in which the accumulation of post-1994 battles has produced ever-more vitriolic and alienating family spats.
Since Polokwane, South Africans have witnessed what can most aptly be described as continuous instalments of the ANC Fight Club. The ANC house has become too small for the large collection of bruised egos, fiefdoms of patronage, competing chauvinisms, wanna-be political kingmakers and ideological chameleons.
Building on the previous “counter-revolutionary” and “charlatan” name-calling that was the hallmark of Mbeki’s reign, the Zuma crowd has now added “dog”, “snake” and “cockroach”.
The second-layer transitional glue has finally peeled away and the edifice looks pretty ugly.
Indeed, the deterioration of the two metaphorical glues parallels the ANC’s own metamorphosis from a liberation movement designed to overthrow a racially based system of power overlaid with narrow class interests ,to a “modern” bourgeois political party designed to consolidate a class-based system of power overlaid with narrow racial interests.
As has been the case with all national liberation movements that have become post-independence political parties, the ANC has finally been caught in a web of its own contradictions. The consistent, if individually marked, political, organisational and economic bases for the consolidation and exercise of the ANC’s post-1994 power (and accompanying privilege for those at the helm) have planted the seeds of its present troubles.
Whether it be the often bitter retreat into the political shadows of a sizeable portion of the “old” leadership, the apparent ascendance of dumbed-down storm-troopers, the disintegration of its own activist grassroots structures, the socio-political resistance of its “natural” constituencies, the spectacle of professed communists and “radical” unionists embracing socially reactionary positions or the imminent arrival of an ANC breakaway party led by a clutch of former senior ANC leaders — the bottom line is: the ANC is in terminal decline.
The immediate consequences of the ANC’s descent into the morass of its own making will be negative for the majority of South Africans.
On the one hand, Zuma’s ANC will remain largely true to the organisation’s commitment to macro-economic policies that will further consolidate the class interests of the old and new members of the capitalist class, minimal redistribution to the poor notwithstanding.
On the other hand, the Zuma crowd’s thinly veiled misogyny, his pronouncements that the way to deal with rampant crime is to deny bail to criminals and the answer to teenage pregnancies in poor communities is to take babies away from their mothers, foreshadow a potentially reactionary turn towards a pseudo-“traditionalist” social fascism.
However, on the political/organisational front the outlook is a bit more heartening. The space that has been opening up for the past several years as a result of the struggles of workers and poor communities will continue to provide new opportunities for meaningful opposition.
While the ANC will no doubt emerge triumphant from the 2009 national elections, the mere presence of a competitor emerging out of its own senior ranks, despite its centre-right character, has destroyed the ANC’s propaganda mantra of perpetual “organisational unity at all costs” and presages healthier electoral competition.
Like the often heroically infused yet tragic series of events that give Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart its timeless title, the ANC’s falling apart has been in the making for a long time. It will continue for sometime to come.
Unlike Achebe’s story, however, this is no fiction.