Just another political party?

2010-01-14 00:00

THE African National Congress’s January 8 event often reflects the current national mood. During Nelson Mandela’s reign, it would extol matters of nation building and national reconciliation against the backdrop of a better life for all. Mandela would use the event to inspire the nation to embrace the fact that historical problems could be overcome by reaching out to others.

During the Thabo Mbeki years, the focus turned to links between the domestic and the foreign, as well as government efficiency. While not many ordinary people would have fully understood the substance of the statement, it was good food for thought for analysts and columnists as the messages were pitched at the bourgeoisie both in and outside bureaucracy. Whereas Mandela’s messages were designed to reach out to previously advantaged groups and to generate patriotic zeal to realise national goals, Mbeki’s were typical “Mr Delivery” messages, rich in detail of what had been done or what was to be done. There was no distinction between typical government talk and party rhetoric suitable for mass meetings.

Under President Jacob Zuma, the ANC leadership tried to weave together the best of the Mbeki approach, with its focus on service delivery issues, and Mandela’s focus on the intangibles, including the fanfare that characterised the event.

The statement released is simple and accessible. It reflects briefly on the organisation’s historical legacy, mentioning what it calls a “revolutionary alliance” with the South African Communist Party (SACP), the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco), and the fact that its membership is actually growing.

In this context, the statement points out that the ANC has improved its ability to listen to people on the ground, something it should thank the Congress of the People (Cope) for. The ANC is careful not to let its modernisation transform it into a conventional party, associated with elitism and technocracy. The point has been made over and over again in the past decade, suggesting that the ANC sees this as a danger to watch carefully. To stay on this course, the party has to remain a broad-based movement characterised by the co-existence of ideological contradictions among members of the alliance, which occasionally flare up, and the strong voice of ordinary members (both hallmarks of internal democracy), despite the attendant danger of mob rule and acrimony.

Conscious of the unintended consequences of an internal democracy, Zuma alluded to the organisation’s intentions to enforce internal discipline, to build internal structures and improve political education. If not properly understood, democracy is always in danger of being reduced to the rule of the majority, itself a form of mob rule. Democracy was never meant to be a mere reflection of public opinion, simply because the majority is not always right. However, it is important that democracy create a significant space for deliberation by all on choices, decisions and policies to be made by the elite on behalf of the masses.

The ANC promised to establish its internal Policy Institute to enhance the organisation’s policy literacy by generating relevant research and analysis. It seems the organisation has realised that given its intentions to exercise effective oversight over government on the implementation of the election manifesto, it cannot oversee technical processes and products it does not sufficiently understand.

But this is more easily said than done. This is because the ANC first needs to confront a fundamental post-liberation challenge described by Amilcar Cabral in his speech “The Weapon of Theory” in 1966 as “ideological deficiency”. By this he did not mean lack of ideology per se, rather the diminished understanding of historical reality and the utility of experience and ideas accumulated before and after liberation. This deficiency, he said, manifests in a shallow grasp of the current challenges of the social and economic structure. In his view, historical consciousness gives rise to an ideology that convincingly defines the post-liberation problem and explains how change would be brought about. It identifies motive forces to drive change after independence in the context of the continuing global transformations that we now call globalisation­.

Writing before significant reversals in the independence movement in Africa, Cabral lamented the fact that liberation movements were so preoccupied with the business of governing that they ignored the continuity of history as a process of change from the past through the present to the future. They turned citizens into people without history, notwithstanding evidence of the impact of colonialism and neocolonialism on people’s lives.

One wonders just what ideology the ANC will transmit through its political education. Will it reduce this to party doctrine and rules? While this will help instil party loyalty and discipline, it will not help produce a cadreship capable of leading the process of change that will free ordinary people from the shackles of neocolonialism. The ideology Cabral referred to is about historical continuity, distortion of structure and thought, as well as how to cause fundamental change to socioeconomic structure in order to realise the total freedom of former oppressed people.

If the envisaged Policy Institute limits its work to technocratic imperatives of governing and neglects the ideational issues, the ANC will miss the opportunity to champion a sound post-liberation ideology that its counterparts in Africa could emulate in future. The institute would also need to be part of intellectual deliberation taking place on various platforms in society as part of shaping and drawing from the existing marketplace of ideas. It would then be able to address fundamental issues that lead to many policy failures. It would also provide the conceptual basis for an authentically South African version of the envisioned developmental state.

There should not be a contradiction between the unavoidable focus on policy effectiveness and the work on the new ideology. It is not enough to confirm the commitment to the national democratic revolution or the broader leftist thinking year in and year out. Over the past decade, leftist scholars have debated new directions of leftist thinking — a rich source of ideas for the ANC to engage with in refining its ideological stance.

Otherwise, the January 8 statements will be reduced to regurgitating the same technocratic issues and party doctrine at the risk of alienating the poor, who are looking for change in the entirety of their circumstances. If the ANC focuses too narrowly on the theme of the year, which is effective service to the people, it will become just another conventional political party. But “service” could be read to mean technocratic and philosophical or ideological measures to liberate the poor from a condition into which they have been cast by history. That’s the work of movements such as the ANC.


• Siphamandla Zondi works for the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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