Wondering What The African National Congress Is All About

January 8, 2012

Martin McCauley writes from Bloemfontein: Rows of gleaming BMWs and Mercs fill the car parks, each with its own chauffeur. A bankers’ convention? No, it’s the hundredth anniversary binge of the African National Congress (ANC), the continent’s oldest national liberation movement.

Over 100,000 were partying, dancing and singing the glories of South Africa’s ruling party. Anyone who is anyone in Africa was here. There is a lot to celebrate for everyone who has any connection to the ANC. It began its life as the Native National Congress on 8 January 1912 in Bloemfontein. The founders were middle class blacks and tribal chiefs, who had joined forces to protect and expand black rights. Two of the consequences of the Boer War between the Boers (Dutch) and British were that Africans acquired the right to own property and vote. Hence, it was a bourgeois movement that paid little attention to the indigenous blacks. It changed its name to the ANC in 1923.

With communism on the rise everywhere in the world in the 1920s and 1930s, the ANC entered into a tactical alliance with the South African Communist Party that at the time was illegal. Moscow’s language took over and the ANC proclaimed the smashing of the capitalist state and apartheid. Communists sought leading positions in the ANC. The ANC was banned in 1960 and went underground.

The fall of the Berlin Wall transformed the fortunes of the ANC. Communism was the ideology of the past and capitalism was that of the future. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told F. W. De Klerk, the South African President, to release Nelson Mandela and prepare for a black government In Pretoria, the state capital. Thabo Mbeki came back from exile and took over as the top black politician. He had a big idea: transfer part of the equity of the leading companies to blacks to create overnight a black middle class. The ANC rank and file though had to make do with welfare payments – that is when they were paid. ANC leaders became fat cats and built villas behind walled compounds – just like white fat cats did before them. The white and black bourgeoisie linked arms and agreed to rule the country in their interests. Almost half of government tenders go to the sole bidder. The winners are now called ‘tenderpreneurs’.

ANC rhetoric that used to sound like Moscow’s propaganda has turned turtle. True, it uses communist language from time to time, but that is only to placate the little people. Half the population only consume 8 per cent of the GDP. Millions live in miserable shacks. The ANC is the ruling party and has no intention of giving up power. Palms can be greased to ensure the right decisions are taken. With gold prices at a record high, there is plenty of money swishing around. This, unsurprisingly, means that the ANC is breaking up into factions based on economic interests. Journalists are not permitted to investigate accusations of corruption. Such information is a state secret.

So where is the ANC heading? It has returned to its roots as a bourgeois party. However, it should remember a basic law of politics: unity is strength. The key reason why parties lose power is when the leadership is divided. A ruling party has to deliver economic growth which embraces the great majority of the population. In today’s world that is a tall order. So the ANC is at a crossroads. Either it can promote entrepreneurial capitalism to benefit the masses or it will have to become more authoritarian in order to retain power. Which way will the cat jump?