100 Years of the ANC: From Liberation Movement to State Power in South Africa
by Adèle Kirsten and Tshepo Madlingozi
There is no doubt that South Africa is in deep crisis – an unfinished revolution. “The land question is unresolved, economic redistribution is not addressed, racial equality is not attained.” Yet the ruling African National Congress remains deeply embedded in the nation’s political culture. “The ANC remains the central organizational pivot in South Africa’s peoples’ lives.”
100 Years of the ANC: From Liberation Movement to State Power in South Africa
by Adèle Kirsten and Tshepo Madlingozi
This article previously appeared in Pambazuka News.
“It is highly improbable that this moment is going to trigger a new alternative movement to the ruling ANC.”
Adèle Kirsten is from Johannesburg, South Africa. She is a social scientist and a political activist. During the 1970s she joined the fight against Apartheid. She has fought for social justice and against militarisation ever since. Adèle Kirsten has co-founded and was head of Gun Free South Africa (GFSA). Nowadays she coordinates Local Government Action, an alliance of social movements and non-governmental organisations.
Tshepo Madlingozi is from Bloemfontien, South Africa. As a lawyer and a senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria he is engaged in the work of Khulumani Support Group, one of the largest self-help organisations of survivors of apartheid. It fights for the visibility and compensation of its 60,000 members and champions the cause of a just society. He belongs to the first generation of activists who grew up in post-apartheid era. At present he lives and works in London writing his PhD thesis. In 2013, Symbols or Substance: Socio-economic rights strategies in South Africa, edited by Tshepo Madlingozi, will be published.
For almost 40 years, the development and human-rights organization Medico International, together with African, Asian and Latin-American partners, struggles for the human right to health and the improvement of living conditions in war and crisis regions. Health requires the full respect for people’s economic, social and cultural needs in times of distress. This implies analysing the causes of poverty and violence and working towards their elimination and for alternatives to liberal globalization. In 1997 the International Campaign to Ban Landmines co-founded by medico international was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize.
MEDICO INTERNATIONAL: In September 34 people were killed during the strike of mineworkers in Marikana. Would you mark this as a historical break? Is there an ANC era before and after Marikana?
TSHEPO MADLINGOZI: It is historical, of course. Not so many people have been killed by police post-1994. So, just the scale of it is shocking, is historical. If you look at the protests that have been happening in local government, all of them where the police have acted have been very hostile and very repressive. Moving from banning the marches to imposing bail conditions that are very harsh, to killing people. So for me that is not historical in the sense that it is something new and unexpected, it is a culmination of a repressive government that has always been there, from apartheid era to “post”-apartheid era.
ADÈLE KIRSTEN: The immediate reaction after the massacre felt as if this is a watershed moment in our democracy. However, it is too early to know the long-term impacts and whether there is a shift in the way we are going. There are some really worrying signs, though. This is the single biggest killing of people by the state indeed. A research project I was involved in has shown two findings concerning the police: Either they were completely absent during political community mobilization and protest or their presence, if at all they were present, kindled the potential for violence because of their own violent response.
“The remilitarization of the police was begun and has been put to practice in the last two years.”
For me this is a kind of failure of the democratic transformation project for which the police were seen as a key institution. The project to turn our police from a repressive police force into a human rights police, for which people worked on developing an agenda, has failed. Furthermore, on President Zuma’s initiative during the period between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, the remilitarization of the police was begun and has been put to practice in the last two years. This has created a cultural climate which encourages police to use maximum force. This has been made public but there has been a lack of political clarity at all levels, parliamentary oversight also has been unclear and has given different views on when police may or may not shoot. So, for example, in 2008 then Deputy Safety and Security Minister and now Minister of Mining instructed the police to ‘kill the bastards’, referring to criminals. This has not been forgotten and one of the things we are struggling to understand is whether people were killed because they were not part of a trade union which is part of the Tripartite Alliance [Alliance between the ANC, the Union Federation COSATU and the South African Communist Party]. People feel that the reason why the miners were killed is that they were black, by black police; this is the state killing black workers. So the racial dimension is a huge issue in the discussion. Interestingly, and this is where we are seeing some kind of political shift, anyone who is strongly aligned with the ANC calls it a tragedy. You will not hear any ANC official call it a massacre. It is the civil society and the media that use the word massacre. Journalists have discovered that 14 people were directly killed in the line of fire, and in fact the majority of people were hunted down, followed and executed cold-bloodedly amongst the rocks and therefore it was both a massacre and a kind of execution.
MEDICO INTERNATIONAL: Does the government plan to set up a commission?
TSHEPO MADLINGOZI: Circumstances need to be right for a watershed moment to usher in a new era in which such things do not happen again. However, if you observe the commission that has been set up to look into this massacre, if you examine the response from the state, from the president and from the security cluster it does not seem as if there would be fundamental changes. To begin with, the reasons why all this happened in the first place are the massive inequality and the living conditions of workers, miners, which are appalling. This is not going to change. The massive inequality between workers and bosses, black people and white people, is not going to change either. Second, it is highly improbable that this moment is going to trigger a new alternative movement to the ruling ANC, similar to the emergence of the UDF [United Democratic Front] in the 1980s. On the state’s side nothing is going to change. Just have a look at who has been dominating the discussion in ‘civil society’; it has been the same old voices, formal NGOs once again. It will still be us, lawyers, researchers, academics, who dominate the discussion, even at the commission investigating the events which is going to cost five to seven million Euros, a waste of money that will go to lawyers, researchers, academics and the judges. No strong social movement will arise from this, a mass base movement will not emerge. There will not be a fundamental transformation of the way the police treat protests either. It may be too early to anticipate the outcomes of this (commission) but I am not very hopeful that the root causes are going to be addressed in order to prevent such a massacre from happening ever again. And the last thing we have not spoken about so far is the fact that black life is still cheap in South Africa. That is not going to change soon.
MEDICO INTERNATIONAL: The events of Marikana are frightening. Is this watershed moment going to lead to an even more explosive situation?
ADÈLE KIRSTEN: The state is consolidating its position and what this means is that it becomes very defensive and hypersensitive to criticism. For example, over the last few years it has held the view (at least publicly) that the community protests are organised by a ‘third force’ and therefore does not see it as necessary to understand or engage with the meaning of these protests. And it takes a heavy hand such as banning protests. There is a consolidation of positions of the state. The ANC is taking a very paranoid position that is organised by a ‘Third Force’ which is somehow deliberately undermining the ruling party. We have seen high levels of paranoia in the last weeks, the banning of protest, for example. We are witnessing an increasingly paranoiac defensive state that is going to shut down opportunity for engagement around issues and protest and a hardening of attitudes. So I think we are going to have an increase in protest and in the new surveillance both by protesters and by the state. Things are going to get worse; we are going to see increased levels of violence. Living conditions are not going to change fundamentally but I think there are pockets within the ANC where people recognise that unless the issue of material conditions and informal segments are addressed the party is in serious trouble.
“We are witnessing an increasingly paranoiac defensive state.”
You also have to realize that over the next 18 months we are in a state of paralysis because of the ANC policy conference in December. Therefore everyone is struggling for positions and in 18 or 14 months after December we are heading towards another general election. That partly explains why you might not see any change. People are positioning themselves politically. Any delivery of program or services becomes secondary.
TSHEPO MADLINGOZI: It is not sustainable, of course. We are unique in this. No other country has so many fault lines; racial fault lines, class divisions, gender, etcetera. We have not talked about the gender dimension. There is a gender war going on... We are talking about ten to twelve thousand protests a year; this is more than anywhere in the world. It is a game: people destroy some property, the police come and disperse them, and the protest dies down. In 2008 people said: “We are poor, we are voting, we are in a democracy but nothing changes. Therefore we are going to blame the foreigners.” If we talk about the land question, sometimes our politicians are talking about what is happening in the urban areas but for the majority of citizens’ issues of land, issues of poverty, passed on from one generation to another, the living conditions have not changed. They are almost the same as under apartheid. This, too, is a ticking time bomb. We are going to court as civil society in order to solve some individual cases but the big stuff is left unattended: the land question is unresolved, economic redistribution is not addressed, racial equality is not attained, cultural transformation in terms of how people act towards people who do not have the same sexual orientation, towards women, towards people who are not from South Africa all of these cannot be addressed in the courtroom.
MEDICO INTERNATIONAL: Which role does the state play?
TSHEPO MADLINGOZI: The state is paralysed. First, the intelligentsia as well as local government people are divided into camps either championing the cause of President Zuma [President of South Africa since 2009, president of the ANC since 2007], or of Julius Malema [president of the ANC Youth League, suspended in 2012]. Second, it is true that the there are not enough skilled people in government. Third, there is not much the state can do. It cannot tackle the land question because of the constitution. In a globalized world that favours free market and liberalism if you do anything radical in terms of fundamental economic transformation you will be punished. Fourth, there is a massive problem with corruption and materialism. People are talking very freely about how much money they give to bribe state officials; it is widely accepted. My fear is that the culture of corruption will become more and more institutionalized. Apart from that, economic redistribution is not in the hands of the state. We have the highest level of inequality in the world. So many social ills come from inequality. It is up to the rich to do something about it; it is up to white people to acknowledge that they have been massively privileged, that black poverty is a direct result of white privilege.
“It is a class apartheid.”
The two are linked; it is a class apartheid. Even though some black people can get rich, there is still racial inequality. It is not only the state which bears responsibility but also white people and the ANC bear a share of the responsibility. However, the ANC is messed up and the state is paralysed. The state could do a lot but it is failing constitutionally, politically and socially.
MEDICO INTERNATIONAL: Listening to you one gets the impression that you feel betrayed by the ANC. In South Africa a freedom movement took over a government. What does that mean for strong social movements beyond the ANC today?
ADÈLE KIRSTEN: Despite the seemingly organic nature of some of the protests, the ANC remains the pivotal point around which everything happens. Everything still is organised around the ANC. For example, protest action is organized by senior ANC branch members. People who work in the local branch do not quit the branch but help set up citizens’ groups which are concerned about the service in their community. They (this refers to the main protagonists or organizers of the protests) organize the rally, they organize the young men who then fight the street battles. And once the aim of getting rid of the councilor they do not like is achieved, they install their ANC person. This is how some really interesting social demands and mobilizations get reabsorbed by the ANC. So the ANC remains the central organizational pivot in South Africa’s peoples’ lives.
“People are being killed for their positions, as we see in KwaZulu-Natal.”
Given the structure of South Africa’s economy which remains focused on the historical arena of industrial white capital and the relative lack of economic opportunity particularly within business for many black South Africans, because it is dominated by white capital, the state becomes the only and perhaps most obvious avenue through which to accumulate the address for accumulating resources, for class mobility. There are a lot of struggles to get positions within the party; people are being killed for their positions, as we see in KwaZulu-Natal. We have not seen that since the 1980s. Despite the failures and all the bad things the ANC has done there is a deep emotional attachment to it and it is very hard to completely break away particularly so because it was an extraordinary liberation movement. However, a huge mistake we made – I am telling you that as an internal person, during the late 1980s and the early 1990s when the exiled were returning – was to disband the UDF [United Democratic Front, a broad non-racial anti-apartheid coalition of the 1980s]. The transformation of society has essentially been dominated by the external movement, the movement in exile. The discussions about the visions of the sort of society we wanted felt different to any other liberation movement; it felt possible. Being part of those discussions and imagining how our lives would be different was very exciting. We had slightly unrealistic expectations of what this movement could deliver, though. We were confronted with a series of challenges and problems we had not foreseen. The process of a liberation movement suddenly becoming a government was complex and complicated. My involvement in the anti-apartheid movement weighs more heavily than the end scene, though. As an anti-apartheid activist I have gone through what people call “rainbow nation,” the honeymoon period. It was amazing, it was exciting, it was electric – we did not want to see the failing of our plans. It was about a vision of a new society and the ANC was a key vehicle for that but it was not the only vehicle. So I do not feel, which some comrades and activists do, the sense of betrayal.
Nowadays I see my work as remaining true to the vision that I believe the ANC shares with all of us. When I go to the voting booth I do feel all the dilemmas pertaining to the ANC, though. Their policies are good. Still, I cannot vote for them. But the alternatives are worse. For instance, I have imbalances towards the reconciliation process. One of the things that happened and that nobody talks about is the pact between big business and the ANC in the late 1980s. Business was one of the first groups to organize trips to the exiled leadership of the ANC in the late 1980s because they knew they would get the ANC on their side so that the ANC does not implement nationalization. That is one of the legacies of Mandela's presidency [1994 - 1999] which no one wants to talk about. Even though he is an iconic figure he made some mistakes. This is connected to the issue of white capital and the opportunity for white capital to do something different and to somehow make reparations.
“The white middle class has benefitted most since the post-apartheid era.”
The second weakness of the process is that it was focused on the big human rights abuses, perpetrators and victims. There was no real hearing or attention paid to the day-to-day damage of apartheid for ordinary black people. Stuff like what it meant for a black woman to have to work in a white person's household and the day-to-day degradation and lack of dignity which come about. I think that would have helped whites understand the impact of apartheid because whites now have the sense that the bad guys were just a few cops and some radical activists, not them. The social engineering of apartheid has never been acknowledged. The white middle class has benefitted most since the post-apartheid era. Our society remains racially polarised. We are even witnessing a heightening of racial tensions in the country. This becomes very obvious in discussions about Malema or Mandela, for example, and from the way the public engages in these issues you can work out whether it is a black or a white opinion. We need to have a discussion about race but without shouting at each other. The ANC could play a central role in this. As a white who has switched sides I have a sharp-sighted perception of the comfort and ease with which white people express outright racist opinion without feeling embarrassed about it any longer. Whenever I am in a homogeneous group of whites the general assumption is that all whites share the same view. Racist statements are made openly here. That was normal under apartheid. In post-apartheid it stopped because they somehow realised that support for their views had faded. Today I find myself being transported back to the apartheid years and again have to make choices and decisions about when I speak out.
TSHEPO MADLINGOZI: I do not feel betrayed by the ANC because I never had an attachment to it. Of course, independently of political camps every black person saw the ANC and Mandela as their messiah. I grew up in the 1980s and I came to political consciousness in the context of what was happening in my immediate community. The 1980s were the heyday of People's Power, there were street committees, defence committees, people’s courts and other alternative structures of governance.
MEDICO INTERNATIONAL: How old were you then?
TSHEPO MADLINGOZI: I was 12 or 13. It was the time I found my identity and I was part of the activists who were not in touch with the ANC. They were attached to the UDF but not led by it. They rejected apartheid authorities and structures and set up alternative governance institutions. That was exciting. The first English word I learnt was ‘power’. People used to say ‘We are making power’. For me as a young kid this meant rioting, staging uprisings. I grew up in mass movements and with a sense that people can go into action without central political parties taking the decisions. I believe in the power of social movements, of activists and civil society, even if I sometimes do not know what civil society is. The repressive state of South Africa had to be changed and that had a very personal significance to me.
My father was a miner. I did not see him for months during the year because of the migrant labour system in terms of which men had to go work in the mines far away from their homes and families. This system is really the most devastating legacy of apartheid. It destroyed entire communities; it created a different manhood, a toxic masculinity. Men had no place at home when coming back from the mines. They had totally lost the bond to their families. It is the same today. As a child I felt evil was there, right in the mines, with the capital, with the people my father had to work for. It was so unfair. My father passed away whilst working in the mines. People who came back from exile in the 1990s were inspiring, doing poetry and singing songs in different languages, telling stories of Fidel, of Russia, of China, of independent Africa. In a way they had become different human beings. But they also came back with a political culture of centralised decision-making based on Marxism-Leninism – unlike the UDF which was based on debates and bottom-up participation. People who had stayed in South Africa and who had contributed to building the struggle were then marginalized.
“South Africa was very unfortunate to have Mandela as its first president.”
The ANC in exile was also a very secretive movement, so leadership and decision-making was centralized. In 1990 civic movements demobilised and were assimilated by force by the party because the ANC had told them: ‘Your job is done’. The fact that the UDF disbanded in February 1991 is very sad and regrettable. In 1992 COSATU [Congress of South African Trade Unions] formally forged an alliance with the ANC. By then it had three million members. They were all absorbed into the ANC. Moreover, South Africa was very unfortunate to have Mandela as its first president. In 1992 and 1993 he entered into agreements with the IMF and the World Bank. Under Mandela the ANC approved liberalism. The false compromises that Mandela made on land, on property ownership, on the economy, on what the state can do and cannot do could not be challenged because of who he was. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if the first president of South Africa had not been Mandela but somebody else. What kind of questions could have been asked? What kind of mobilisation could have happened? In 1999 when post-apartheid social movements re-emerged people rose up again for democracy and dignity, led by the same activists who had been disbanded. But Mandela was so clear about his marginalizing position which favoured big business. No, I do not feel betrayed by the ANC because they were very clear about this. However, we must acknowledge that it is only in a very few cases in the whole world where there has been true independence. We have not had it in Africa. Why should South Africa be any different from this? Why this exceptionalism? Attaining true post-colonial independence is very difficult. The reality rather is that countries undergo neo-colonialism. In South Africa everything revolves around the ANC and it will do so for a long time, there is no doubt. Therefore two things must happen: To restore confidence there must be a radical shift within the ANC. It is a tragedy that people feel betrayed. Second, we need a sense of substantive uncertainty. In other countries politicians do not know whether they are going to be voted in or not. In South Africa, the ANC knows that it will stay in power at least for another decade.
Interview by Anne Jung and Usche Merk, medico international. Editing and Translation by Olivia Klimm.