The ANC's continued conceptualisation of South Africa as "Colonialism of a Special Type" is inaccurate and misleading. But it is a handy pretence at an ideological instrument which is in fact devoid of ideology. In reality, it is an instrument that excuses impunity, justifies capricious policy and legitimises a debilitating race-based politics of revenge, writes Ebrahim Fakir.
The ANC begins its policy discussion documents with one titled, "The Changing Balance of Forces around the South African Transformation Agenda" and postulates that:
The ANC insists on anchoring a conceptualisation and understanding of South Africa through the prism of "colonialism of a special type". Doing so, however, betrays an understanding of contemporary South Africa astonishingly devoid of ideology (the motive forces and drivers of change) or the context in which the society finds itself.
Insofar as there is context, it relies on a contextualisation of contemporary South Africa in which a theory of transformation and change continues to be premised on the theory of "colonialism of a special type" (CST), from which, arguably, some of the problems of racialised poverty, inequality, unemployment and structural economic exclusion manifest in South African society.
While colonialism of a special type should necessarily be an element in contextualising contemporary South Africa, it is entirely insufficient for accounting for some of the current problems and realities characterising South African society, such as rampant government failure, malevolent state capture, institutional decay and economic stagnation.
Colonialism of a special type may explain the legacy bequeathed by apartheid and even account for some post-apartheid co-incidences between identity, inequality and poverty, but it fails dismally to grasp the problems of post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa - such as increasing levels of inequality - both inter and intra community.
It also fails to account for why, despite increasing levels of public expenditure in the social sector [health, education, social services, welfare], high levels of poverty co-exist with widening inequality, or even why advanced modes of development, production, financialisation and capital accumulation continue to co-exist with underdevelopment and primitive modes of subsistence.
It fares even worse in explaining the inexplicably high levels of public [in]civility and civic [im]morality - manifested in organised crime syndicates who infiltrate and operate in government, the security sector and the state, high levels of gender-based and inter-personal violence, and generalised crime.
Most acutely, it fails to account for the ANC's capture, use and deployment of political power in service of itself instead of the society at large.
There is little wonder that, in the introduction of the 2022 policy documents, and repeated at the ANC KwaZulu-Natal provincial policy conference, President Cyril Ramaphosa was moved to boldly say:
Tragically, it has taken President Cyril Ramaphosa nearly five years since his election into the presidency of the ANC to remind party members and delegates at the conference that they need to shift their gaze from the inward-looking parochialism, paranoid hysteria and culture of suspicion within that seizes them, to considering that the ANC exists not for its own sake, but to serve the society.
Colonialism of a special type and its mis-characterisations
The continued characterisation of South Africa as a "colonialism of a special type" - and the ANC's role in perpetuating it - is unable to explain the ANC's general incoherence in government, and its organisational inability to contain its irresolvable contradictions starkly expressed in its internal fault-lines and contradictory approaches to the conception, nature and character of government (for example - constitutional versus parliamentary democracy), and the polar opposite proposals in economic policy, leading the contradictory visions instead of competing ideas, within the ANC.
Since the South African Communist Party's adoption of the "Road to South African Freedom" in 1962, and its influence on the thinking of the ANC, together with the ANC's adoption of its first strategy and tactics at the Morogoro Conference in 1969 - it appears as if the ANC has made no significant advance in its conceptual and theoretical understanding of the current South African condition, nor any innovations in the practical application of policy required to unravel and solve South Africa's seemingly intractable socio-economic problems.
Caught in the clutches of a moribund conceptualisation of the contemporary South Africa through colonialism of a special type, and the attendant postulation inherent in it, that there are no acute or antagonistic divisions among the African people and blacks in general, the ANC appears unable to grasp the changing realities in society, including that there are now decidedly acute and antagonistic relations among Africans, and blacks in general – ranging from economic circumstances and being on different sides of the inequality divide, through to (un)employment status, spatial location, ethnic, religious and or other primordial identity cleavages.
This conceptual wilderness and its decontextualised and de-historicised approach to policy, the ANC stubbornly clings to this anachronism in centring itself as the "Parliament of the people", which it decidedly is not. By understanding itself as such, it believes that it alone is the site where society's problems and social contradictions can be solved and tensions mediated.
The results of the 2019 national/provincial and 2021 local government elections should disabuse it of any such notions.
After all, after 2021, the ANC lost control, authority and influence in almost all metros, the centres of commerce, industry, finance, and technology – the drivers of advancement, growth and redistribution. Yet the party labours under the misapprehension that it can elevate itself above all other actors, institutions, and spheres in society, thinking that it alone directs the theatre in which tensions in society are played out.
The lack of a decisive and defined role for the party within the broader matrix of organisations and institutions in society, requiring democratic government, has created the space for the unleashing the worst of predatory instincts within the ANC, which we now know resulted in both malevolent state capture facilitated and enabled by the ANC, and the seditious insurrection of July 2021.
But there is a reason for this continued gaze upon "colonialism of a special type". It allows the ANC to evade accountability for poor performance, corruption, malfeasance and impunity in government. It allows for the steadfast evasion examining the dynamics surrounding the decline of a governing political party as an organisation and its descent into a political legitimation crisis, while simultaneously evading the impact its legitimation crisis has on undermining public governance, and of an ANC government facing a series of successive credibility crises - with a consequent impact on ethics, integrity and inevitably - on increasingly unstable government.
The fiction of factions
It is tempting to put all of this down to "factions". But factions, in the traditional sense, are usually understood to provide internal mechanisms of restraint within parties where they tend to hold each other to account, contest, compete and refine party policies, and otherwise ensure healthy competition and internal democracy within.
Factionalism, fractionalism and polarisation within the ANC have the veneer of political and policy difference, but, in reality, is merely a smokescreen masking the venality and widespread corruption, in which the factions are merely representative of a more or less sophisticated approach to regularising an increasingly vacuous and venal moral relativity in justifying the ANC's debasement of public office through the accumulated vices of institutional and process manipulation, debasing of Parliament through the crude (ab)use of its majority, and its abuse of power and authority in the executive, corruption and impunity.
Seemingly indomitable parties riven with internal conflict, motivated by a flagrant disregard for compliance to its own internal protocols and discipline, who despite their dominance in society compared to other parties, are susceptible to decline since dominance and hegemony are achieved by being a catch-all party that attracts a motley ensemble of ideologies and interests, diverse political actors and activists, including the corrupt, the incompetent and the opportunist.
With all these in its ranks, the ANC will henceforth remain an inherently unstable and tenuous construct, collapsing under the weight of its internal contradictions, remaining in constant internal combat where losers of "debates" (where "debate" is a proxy for access to state largesse) continuously undermine and fight against winners, where the ANC as a whole is unable to govern with any degree of organisational coherence or institutional stability.
The (in)convenience of colonialism of a special type
With the ANC's internal debates descending into degenerative hysteria, suspicion, conspiracy and paranoid delusion, leading to more significant fragmentation and factionalisation, fracture and the proliferation of interest groups and factions within – all with shifting and unpredictable internal alliances and coalitions - it creates institutional and organisational attrition and decay.
Vacillating from issue to issue with no principal commitment to any core set of values and beliefs, the only way in which a semblance of coherence can be struck is for the ANC to exploit latent social antagonisms for political gain, competing in a shallow populist pool.
Colonialism of a special type proves to be a handy shorthand for a continued race-based politics of revenge rather than redistribution, based on recidivist policy that undermines rather than promotes social transformation. Colonialism of a special type also allows the ANC to externalise the costs of its inability to contain its internal contradictions and conflicts, in so doing, it has no hesitation in resurfacing latent and residual social antagonisms based on identity cleavages which assume political primacy in perpetuating social and identity antagonisms, instead of solving and extinguishing them.
- Ebrahim Fakir is Director of Programmes at the Auwal Socio Economic Research Institute (ASRI) and is a member of the board of directors of Afesis-Corplan, a development NGO based in the Eastern Cape
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