Guest Column

ANC stuck in the past

2017-07-09 06:24
Christopher Rutledge

Christopher Rutledge

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Christopher Rutledge 

The modern party political system, for all its claims of being the pinnacle of democratic expression in liberal society, has nevertheless produced the contradiction of a state that stands “above and outside of society” as Hannah Arendt, the esteemed 20th-century philosopher, so aptly pointed out.

In South Africa, that point is poignantly illustrated by the attempts at deep soul-searching that has played itself out at the ANC national policy conference over the past week.

The ANC has come face to face with the reality that, no matter how noble an organisation or party’s intentions are, the exercise of power and wealth, without the sobering limitations of a deeply democratic structure, inevitably leads to the development and rise of a political class that soon alienates the state and the party from the people it once represented.

At the centre of the malaise that currently drives the steep descent of the ANC, sit two critical and historical dead weights. These are the oft-used phrases that the ANC is a “broad church” and the contradictory principle of “democratic centralism”.

These dead weights, which once served as a cover-all to the inherent contradictions of the movement, now appear as oppressive burdens that serve only to deepen contradictions and hasten the demise of the ANC’s public stature.

As a broad church, which brought together various strands of the society in opposition to apartheid, the ANC was spectacularly successful as a rallying point around which various interest groups could rally, both before and after 1994.

Upon its attainment of state power, however, the ability to successfully articulate and deliver practical outcomes to the broad interest groups that flocked to the ANC after 1994 – while still delivering to its key support base – was severely constrained.

Blind allegiance

It is largely the economic slowdown and stagnation, along with the crass mode of accumulation via corrupt and shady deals, that has exposed the ANC and forced it to come face to face with the real possibility that it could lose power in 2019.

The policy conference has tried to grapple with the multifaceted challenges of a stagnant and recessionary economy, increasingly brazen attempts to capture the organisation and by extension the government executive, failure of various levels of government to deliver services spurred on by patronage networks of state looting and a growing discontented society that results in both a rise in political protests and the loss of electoral support.

In doing so, it has maintained the mantra of being both a broad church and operating on the basis of central control of the organisation. At times, as it denies the existence of factions and insists that it remains a unitary organisation, it appears as if it is trying to place a square plug into a round hole.

The upshot of this blind allegiance to outdated mantras and ideological cul de sacs, is that the factions remain active, growing ever more brazen, and based not on issues, but on individuals and the growth of personality cults.

The rise of personality cults in the ANC has been a direct result of the organisation’s own failure to allow structured factions to participate in the life of the organisation.

The ANC, by its own admission, views itself as a movement, a broad church, but, unfortunately, as Leonard Gentle once pointed out: “By definition, a movement is heterogeneous, comprising such a range of experiences and organisational forms that no party or single organisation can encompass that range.”

Added to the broad nature of the interests represented in the ANC is the reality that the process of policy development requires organised articulation.

As US socialist, activist and author Hal Draper pointed out: “No matter how class-neutral in origin or intention, the needs of society cannot be met without passing through the political institutions set up by a class-conditioned society, and it is in the course of being processed through these channels that they are shaped, sifted, skewed, moulded, modelled and modulated to fit within the framework established by the ruling interests and ideas. This is how the class nature of the state and society asserts itself, even without malevolent purposes and sinister plots.”

The crux of the ANC’s failure

The ANC is such a political institution and the vacuum that presents itself by the party’s failure to allow for organised factions to contest ideas within the party, results not only in policy confusion, it also ensures that policy is left up to patronage networks organised around personality.

The ANC in its discussion document of 2012 prescribes that: “Our movement must always be at the centre of civil society groups and social movements that are genuinely taking up issues affecting the motive force and give political and ideological leadership” and to embed the organisation in grass roots “daily struggles for a better life” through “development activism”.

Furthermore, it calls for “the creation of organs of people’s power” as the primary organisational form for “organising community involvement in transformation and development work”. 

It is perhaps in this formulation that the ANC has not only failed to muster and maintain support, but has contrived to subvert the idea of a broad movement using outdated Stalinist conceptions of democratic centralism.

An example of a broad movement that was able to attain political power through the ballot box is Syrizia of Greece. Instead of insisting that movements must conform to the central authority of the leadership, Syrizia instead “followed the social movements as it developed and [we] tried to participate in the movement and present [our] views and at the same time learning from it and following its objective rhythms”.

Aristides Baltas, one of the founders, goes on to quote the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “Don’t ask what the road is; you make the road while you walk it.”

And this is perhaps the crux of the ANC’s failure. It purports to be an organisation that listens, that is rooted in communities; yet, it imposes ideas rooted in personality and individual aspiration, rather than being led by active social movements and interest groups that operate not in the shadows of manufactured narratives, but in the daylight of public interest.

If the ANC hopes to retain any semblance of its noble history of a liberation movement, and to overcome the characterisation of a state above and outside of society, then the need to restructure its anachronistic ideological organisational structure is an imperative.

Sadly, it may have missed the boat.

Rutledge is the natural resources manager for ActionAid SA

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Read more on:    anc  |  anc policy conference  |  ancpolicy
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