The ANC at 100: sold out or just upwardly mobile?

By Michael May

The face of Nelson Mandela decorates a cooling tower next to Wesleyan Church, the birthplace of the ANC in 1912. Photo by REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.

This weekend, South Africa’s African National Congress, or the ANC, celebrated its 100th anniversary by spending millions on lavish parties. The party of Nelson Mandela even splurged for a round of golf at a luxury club. All this just a stone’s throw from the small church where the party was founded a century ago.

The celebrations were aimed at reminding South Africans of the ruling party’s deep and significant history. But, not surprisingly, country club parking lots full of BMWs and the bling-bling nature of the weekend’s parties seemed to show how far the party has diverged from its socialist roots.

At Latitude News, we often look to the Daily Maverick for our South Africa news fix. Writer Rebecca Davis did a roundup of how the ANC anniversary was covered, “ANC at 100: How the World Saw it.” A TIME magazine headline says it all: “How the ANC Lost its Way.”

But the Daily Maverick, true to its name, provided a contrarian view on the party’s trajectory. Far from saying the ANC betrayed its core values, writer Sipho Hlongwane argued that the ANC was never a grass-roots phenomenon with pure socialist goals.  In fact, he points out the original leadership were highly educated elites with highfaluting tastes. Hlongwane says the founders would not be shocked to find the heirs to their legacy drinking champagne while their chauffeurs wait outside the club: “It is not difficult to trace a line from the founders of the party to the partying young lions. I don’t think the poor of South Africa today will find much in common with the small group of intellectuals, writers and religious scholars who gathered 100 years ago to draft what would become the ANC.”

But Hlongwane also argues that the ANC have helped the poor, even if the effort is partly due to political pragmatism. “Up to 14-million free houses have been built since 1994,” he writes. “More poor people now have water and electricity than ever before. These are victories the ANC-led government can claim.”

In fact, Hlongwane says that at its heart the struggle against apartheid had more to do with the right to be upwardly mobile than any socialist agenda. “I’m not going to join the line of commentators calling for the ANC to return to its, presumably, poor roots,” he concludes. “This movement has always had a taste for la dolce vita. The 100 years of selfless struggle weren’t so that we would all be on bread and water, right?”

Straight to the Source

  • Simon Glendinning

    What worries me in SA today is the hesitancy shown both by the ANC leadership and their prominent supporters for the formation of what in the UK is called a “loyal opposition”. The position among SA elites seems to be that the only thing you need to do is cultivate ‘self-criticism’. But there are really no examples in the history of the world of an effectively one-party-state being able to generate that kind of internal pluralism. An internal, critical debate does not have to take place within one party – indeed everything suggests that such a condition prevents it.

  • Michael May

    Interesting point Simon. I imagine it’s difficult to forge an alternative when your challenging a ruling party that is so intimately connected to the end of Apartheid.

  • Steve Levitsky

    South Africa is really distinctive in that it combines a founding or liberation party with democracy. When a well-organized mass party leads a successful anti-colonial or liberation movement, it usually earns a degree of popular legitimacy and support that make it unbeatable–for awhile–at the polls. Most successful liberation movements end up establishing hegemonic regimes (e.g., Zimbabwe). Only in a few cases have regimes remained democratic. The closest historical comparison to South Africa is post-colonial India under the Indian National Congress. Another somewhat comparable case is Israel under its founding generation in the 1950s and 60s. In both of these cases, it took a solid 25-30 years for the founding party’s hegemony to erode. In South Africa, it’s been “only” 18 years. Plus, for all the talk of corruption and selling out, the ANC has governed reasonably well–growth rates have been pretty solid. Finally, opposition party-building in South Africa is made more difficult by the race question. My guess is that South Africa will ultimately follow a path somewhat similar to that of India, with the ANC’s electoral dominance slowly eroding and the regime gradually becoming more competitive. But it could easily be another 10-20 years before the ANC loses power.

    • Michael May

      Thanks for your comment Steve. It will be interesting to see how South African democracy matures, and what issues will finally cause a viable alternative to emerge.