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If Mandela’s speech at the 50th Conference of the ANC is any indication of what South Africans can expect under the new leadership of Mbeki, change will not be an issue. Continuity, on the other hand, will mark the power transfer. The ANC, more closely defined as a liberation movement than political party, will continue to accommodate the rural poor, organized labour, liberals and radicals as well as the emerging black capitalist class. (dkc)

vol 13 no 2

The ANC's 50th Conference: A House of Many Mansions?
Tom Lodge

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 2, March 1998
Page 3
"South Africa Now"



Tom Lodge is Professor and Head of the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The ANC's 50th conference, held in Mafikeng, December 16 - 20, 1997, will be remembered as the occasion on which Nelson Mandela abdicated his political authority to Thabo Mbeki, but otherwise it seemed to herald continuity rather than change. Neither expectations of an African nationalist challenge to leadership policies nor the predictions of a concerted left wing rejection of the government's fiscal orthodoxy proved to be accurate: the Africanists were almost invisible and the left demonstrated its presence only in the leadership elections rather than in any debate or discussion. More on the mark when it came to prophecies was the ANC's Kwa-Zulu Natal deputy chairperson. Sibusiso Ndebele, who told a Sowetan journalist that the ANC would not find itself under siege at the old Boer war citadel: "Instead it will ... be celebrating" (Sowetan, 16/12/1997).

Any potential rebelliousness amongst delegates may have been deflected by Nelson Mandela's opening Presidential address which, however much it may have displeased external observers, certainly matched the mood of his audience. Reports from the provinces before the conference suggested widespread disappointment with the slow pace of government delivery over the last three years. Recent opinion polls have suggested that such sentiments are not simply confined to an activist minority; though other parties are not gaining support significantly the ANC's following seems to have been eroded by apathy. It took Mandela five hours to read an edited version of his valedictory speech, a collectively scripted oration - the content and phraseology of the speech closely reflected the substance of the ANC's "Strategy and Tactics" circulated in draft several months before the conference - that can be taken as an authoritative expression of the political mind-set of Mbeki's future presidency.

Mandela's speech

The first half of Mandela's speech was largely constituted by harsh invective against what he termed "the anti-democratic forces of counter revolution" ("President's Report, 50th National Conference," p.3).** These included "opponents of fundamental change" who "have sought to separate the goals of national reconciliation from the critical objective of social transformation" (p.3). "Various elements of the former ruling group" were conspiring in "a network" to promote a "campaign of destabilization" through weakening the ANC and its allies, through using crime to render the country ungovernable, and through eroding popular confidence in government (p.4). Members of such a network were located in the civil service but they were helped by "white parties" who had "essentially decided against the pursuit of a national agenda," "foreign funded NGOs" working "to corrode the influence of the movement," and "the bulk of the mass media" which had "set itself up as a force to oppose the ANC'' (p.7).

Within the ANC's own constituency there were also problems caused by "students in higher education ... driven by self serving anarchist activism"; "infantile radicalism" directed against traditional (chiefly) leadership; corrupt or elitist "careerists within our ranks" (p.31). A scant five pages of the speech were taken up with a discussion of the government's reconstruction and development policy, beginning with a restatement of its commitment to reducing the public deficit. The main thrust of this section emphasized the necessity for "the deracialization of productive property" and the institution of a "system of social accountability for capital" through the establishment by the state of regulatory mechanisms to counteract the inequalities generated by globalization (pp.22 - 27).

Though the speech's authors were careful to buttress social criticism with supportive quotations from such authorities as George Soros, Nelson Rockefeller and Lyndon Johnson this did not prevent foreign journalists attending the opening session from characterizing Mandela's arguments as "antiquated Marxist gibberish" (The Independent, London, 18/12/1997). To be sure, Marxists inside the conference hall may well have been pleased at Mandela's criticisms of the market, albeit criticisms filtered through the qualified language of international financiers [see, however, the accompanying article on the 50th conference by Dale McKinley in this issue - the editors]. But they may also have been disconcerted by his concluding remarks about the alliance.

Thus, while ostensibly reaffirming the ANC's continuing commitment to a "further strengthening" of relations with its allies, he stated that such a commitment should acknowledge the existence of differences. "The SACP is a political formation which has a responsibility to mobilize for its own political support." How such a mobilization would relate "to the issues of the SACP's membership of the Progressive Alliance and the ANC's leadership of this Alliance are precisely the difficult questions which have to be answered" (p.47). Meanwhile, trade unionists had every right to represent the interests of their members, but these were not identical to those of the ANC's broader constituency and the unions should remember that their following occupied "a relatively privileged position" (p.49) when compared to the unemployed.

Fierce rhetoric against opponents of social change might reasonably be assumed to presage a stronger future commitment by the government to transformative policies. As Pallo Jordan explained to journalists after Mandela's oration, tensions in South Africa were expected to heighten as transformation of society and the economy accelerated: "The purpose of the speech is to prevent the attribution of those tensions to the new leadership" (Business Day, 17/12/1997). The speech does refer to the "urgency of achieving decisive movement forward with regard to the creation of a democratic state"; such movement should be premised on "the necessary theoretical framework relating to the nature and role of such a state" (p.22). Still, from the text of the address it is unclear what this might involve other than the exclusion from the bureaucracy of unreconstructed apartheid functionaries. State promoted affirmative action, corporate unbundling, and social investment by big business, laudable as these may be, hardly constitute "fundamental transformation of all sectors of society" nor do such measures require the cadres made in the "metal of revolutionaries." Rhetoric aside, the programmatic dimension of the presidential address was fairly anodyne.

Authoritarian reflexes

What about the criticisms Mandela directed at civil society? Should they too be taken with a pinch of salt, as merely "conference hyperbole" (The Star, 20/12/1997), to quote a phrase used by Pallo Jordan in the subsequent press briefing? Certain ANC leaders may believe that a conspiracy links reactionary civil servants, white opposition parties, NGOs, and the newspaper industry in an orchestrated "counter revolution" but neither Mandela's speech nor the subsequent conference proceedings revealed any serious intentions to curb the activities of the government's critics. The kind of language used to describe the ANC's opponents is partly attributable to the movement's continuing adherence to "national-democratic" and "revolutionary" phraseology which makes it difficult to view opposition as legitimate or patriotic.

Even so, after making allowances for the immediate context of the speech and the intellectual traditions which helped to influence its form, the antagonism Mandela evinced towards "foreign funded" NGOs was worrying. This was a theme which was reasserted in the Secretary-general's report when Cheryl Carolus accused NGOs of being constituents in "a concerted effort to halt transformation" ("Secretary General's Report," p.17). She noted "a proliferation of reactionary, very well resourced NGOs," moving "into the new democratic spaces with vigour" and dominating parliamentary hearings. Carolus's remarks seemed to be mainly directed at liberal organizations which have assumed a lobbying function, including the SAIRR and IDASA. In his comments on NGOs "as instruments of foreign governments," Mandela referred to a report written by US Republicans which reviewed (critically) USAID's support for "old struggle organizations" in South Africa. USAID funding recipients include SANCO, still a formal ANC ally but increasingly predisposed to assert its political autonomy. Of course, it would be odd if the opening address at a ruling party political conference offered praise for the governments opponents and critics but the ANC's characterization of such bodies as IDASA or the civic movement as reactionaries and foreign instruments suggests a fairly deep seated distrust of independent organizational life.

Outside of the ANC and its traditional allies, only Inkatha earned any praise from the president, this for its role in the governing coalition and in Natal peace initiatives. In a press conference the day before the speech Mandela went so far as to call for an IFP/ANC merger, noting that "both parties shared the same vision of a free market economy and the importance of traditional leaders" (The Star, 15/12/1997), a perception which has since become a repeated refrain in statements by other ANC leaders. This may come as a surprise to the thousands of trade unionists and civic activists who have been assaulted by Inkatha impis over the last decade but presumably Mandela's warm words for his coalition partners were mainly earned through their supine performance in parliament. Le Monde's correspondent may have been overstating the case when he interpreted the speech as an agenda for "silencing the left" but certainly in Mandela's discourse the ANC's authoritarian reflexes were more in evidence than any of its democratic predispositions.

Delegates in GEAR?

The apparently unanimous approval of each of the conference resolutions, all three volumes of them, might be thought by some observers to signal an obedient conformity with leadership prescriptions amongst delegates. The reality was more complicated. Kader Asmal claimed in the wake of the conference that the occasion was "lively and vital, stimulating and tiring" and Pallo Jordan felt that delegate endorsement of policy was not without reservations but that generally "the conference was an occasion for people to discuss the government's policy, and to understand it better" (Mail and Guardian, 24/12/98).

In fact many of the resolutions as well as the "discussion papers" which supplied their justifications themselves embodied compromises which had been reached in earlier meetings which had been much more contentious For example, one month before the conference, for example, the Eastern Cape provincial ANC was reported to be in rebellion, with its secretary, Humphrey Maxegwana promising to "actively campaign for GEAR to be reviewed" and with a nomination list for the ANC's top six positions in circulation including Winnie Madikizela Mandela and excluding Jacob Zuma. The more fervent critics of GEAR may have believed that by the time of the national conference they had extracted as much in the way of concessions they were likely to achieve.

This might explain the discernibly more conciliatory language employed by COSATU spokesmen with respect to government macro-economic policy in the days before the conference. Thus, just before the conference, Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU's Deputy Secretary-General had confined himself to observing mildly that COSATU would "provide its input on how the Government's GEAR policy could be refined" and his superior, Sam Shilowa had noted that "the issue" was "not how the ANC and COSATU had differed on GEAR, but how as an alliance we can work towards socio-economic transformation of our country" (Sowetan, 17/12/1997). SACP chairman, Blade Nzimande also seem determined to be diplomatic: "the party" did "not want the conference to degenerate into a war over GEAR" and was "approaching the meeting in a spirit of unity."

The report of the Alliance Summit held on August 31st, and distributed at Mafikeng, helped to explain the conciliatory mood characterizing these statements. There Mandela had conceded that "it was wrong for any party to adopt a non-negotiable stand" ("Report of the Alliance Summit," p.1). The summit had agreed that "a democratic state needs to be active and interventionist," not laissez faire. The National Democratic Revolution was "a transformational engagement with the continuous tendencies of capitalist accumulation to exploit and oppress" (p.5), and hence the government and the ANC should work "with and against the profit seeking logic of private capitalism," an ambiguous formulation which supplied a carefully calibrated intellectual justification for the continued association of socialist and non-socialist forces in the Alliance.

COSATU would have been especially pleased with this report's concession that "coherent transformation" would still "require state ownership" (p.16) of productive assets as well as a "large scale programme of land redistribution" (p.19). A call for a "social plan ... to deal with the consequences of labour restructuring" (p.18) touched on another vital trade union preoccupation. GEAR "did not replace RDP," it merely represented an elaboration of one of its facets, fiscal policy, and the Alliance needed "to look at alternative approaches to the budget, the budget deficit (to) the approach adopted in GEAR," these might include implementing a pay as you go system in the pension fund (p.26).

The "Economic Transformation" resolutions reflected some of these arguments as well as the findings of a policy conference held by the ANC's Commission on Economic Transformation on 1 - 2 November. Its report ("Challenges and Programmes of Transformation into the 21st Century") detailed various kinds of state intervention to promote industrial policy, acknowledged the "gravity of unemployment" was such "that the economy cannot rely on trickle down effects for it to be resolved" - state measures should include an expansion of public works and "the redistribution of assets to the previously marginalized." Black "collective empowerment" should include a change in workplace relations. The resolutions emerging from this commission acknowledged the "interaction between GEAR and the RDP" and emphasized "the basic objective of macro economic stability." "GEAR provides the basis for achieving such stability," though "it will be monitored and adjusted through the policy processes adopted at this conference" (p.37).

The resolution was adopted unanimously after a bare fifteen minutes discussion at the plenary session, this despite an earlier expression of reservation by Trevor Manuel who felt that "the level of detailing (in GEAR) is disempowering to people" and that "the ANC conference should not be asked to endorse GEAR" (Business Day, 19/12/1997). The adoption of the resolution had come after two days of commission sessions; five hundred delegates had broken up into ten groups to discuss economic policy. Apparently delegates with recently acquired municipal council experience played an especially important role in such discussions: local government financial administration has given the ANC rank and file a new degree of competence in debating economic policy, as well as, perhaps, an understanding of the fiscal limitations which confront social reformers.

Even so, the voting unanimity was surprising - Tito Mboweni, chair of the Commission confessed as much afterwards. It may also have been partly attributable to a perception within the left that the language in the summit and commission report leaves plenty of room for manoeuvre in the future, especially in an ANC executive in which the left has a strong presence and in an organizational context refashioned in such a way, in the words of one of the commission reports "to enhance the control of the democratic movement over policy development."

Other business

Contrary to expectations expressed by some ANC leaders, including Popo Molefe, who predicted that the proceedings would be dominated by "a battle to get the GEAR policy adopted by the ANC" (Sunday Independent, 30/11/1997), economics did not monopolize the conference. A lengthy report on local government concluded with arguments favouring the abolition of "two-tier" metropolitan authorities which will upset opposition parties which favour decentralized municipalities. Nor will Inkatha be pleased with the ANC's determination to reduce chiefs to advisory and ceremonial functions, removing from them their exclusive control over communal land allocation. Newspaper editors may well be alarmed by a proposal from the International Relations Commission that "the state needs to consider its relationship with the media which is largely foreign owned, and which seeks to project us in a negative light."

Amongst the more consequential alterations to the ANC's constitution delegates accepted a revision to the requirement that conference should meet every three years - in future such assemblies will be held every five years. The constitutional changes also included provision for the appointment of a "National List Committee" of 5 to 9 members, chosen by the NEC which would have final authority over the election of parliamentary candidates, another significant addition to the scope of leadership authority (in the last election candidates were chosen through a process of nomination and balloting though the subsequent lists were adjusted by leadership).

If the last of these decisions signalled an expansion of executive power within the ANC the NEC and officeholder elections were an illuminating demonstration of the limits of leadership authority. If leadership got its way over policy, left wing critics of economic "neo-liberalism" could claim gains from the elections. Despite behind the scenes pressure on candidates to stand down, two of the six top positions were contested, the posts of National Chairman and Deputy Secretary General. Both these contests were won by the candidates supported by COSATU and the SACP, Terror Lekota and Thenjiwe Mthintso, in the case of Lekota, overwhelmingly against Sports Minister and ANC National Organizer Steve Tshwete. Lekota's victory may have owed something to delegate displeasure with Tshwete's public censure of Winnie Madikizela Mandela three weeks before the conference as well as sympathy for Lekota engendered by his removal from the Free State premiership after attempting to punish corruption within his cabinet. Gender Commission Chairperson Mthintso is known to be an outspoken opponent of GEAR; she won a more narrow victory against Mavivi Myakayaka Manzini, Thabo Mbeki's "eyes and ears" in parliament.

Three of the ANC's national offices would have been contested because up until the elections themselves Winnie Madikizela Mandela considered herself to be a candidate for the deputy presidency against the executive's favoured Jacob Zuma. Energetic canvassing by leadership in the months preceding the conference had persuaded the provincial executives to nominate Zuma and a constitutional amendment increased the proportion from ten to twenty five per cent of delegate nominations from the conference floor which Mrs Mandela needed to stand. Two weeks before the conference it was increasingly evident that her support even within the Women's League was slipping; her outspoken criticism of government "delivery" shortcomings and the testimony offered to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had helped to alienate members of the League's executive. In the event only 125 delegates were willing to second her nomination and she stood down. A secret ballot may have demonstrated more support - nomination was through a show of hands - but her slide to fifteenth position (2,059 votes) in the NEC elections, from fifth in 1994 was a telling indication of her declining influence in the organization. The NEC ballot was secret, and administered by the Electoral Institute of South Africa. 3,064 delegates voted, each of sixty of a possible 131 candidates.

Peter Mokaba, another key figure in "populist" or "Africanist" ANC circles also lost ground in the elections, only just claiming a place in the top twenty in comparison with his third highest tally in the 1994 poll. Discouragingly for those who shared Mokaba's view that "non-Africans" and Communists share disproportionate influence over the movement, only three "Africans" were among the ten who received most delegate support and each of these three, Cyril Ramaphosa, Tito Mboweni and Pallo Jordan are at odds with the Africanist/populist camp.

Many mansions

If the Africanists did not carry the day, however, it would be almost equally difficult to claim that the left had done so. Moreover, "the left" itself represents a pretty disparate coalition. Cyril Ramaphosa is believed to continue to enjoy SACP support but as South Africa's leading black businessman he can hardly be counted within the socialist camp. Nor is this the case with respect to Lekota whose candidature for the chairmanship was favoured by the party and COSATU. Trade unionists may derive some satisfaction from the movement of NUM leader Kgalema Motlanthe into the ANC secretary general's office. It should be noted, though, that the NUM is among COSATU's affiliates, one of the most politically loyal to the ANC. One person who expressed regret at Motlanthe's elevation was Stella Sigcau, Minister of Public Enterprises. She was overheard praising Motlanthe for his helpful role in privatization negotiations "in getting the unions on board" (Business Day, 19/12/1997). Sigcau, incidentally, was the only cabinet minister who failed to obtain a seat on the National Executive.

Most members of government fared well in the NEC elections, though, calling into questions pre-conference reports concerning activist displeasure with government performance (though it may be significant that those personalities widely believed to be particularly indebted to Thabo Mbeki for their elevation fared comparatively badly in the NEC elections - the Pahad brothers and Housing Minister Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele were cases in point). Trevor Manuel's high seventh ranking was especially noteworthy given his identification with unpopular fiscal policy.

A final consideration in any effort to assess the ideological mix in the ANC top echelons after the conference should be the organization's increased financial dependence on black business: the Treasurer's report noted that black businessmen who used to donate R250,000 can now be approached for donations of R2 million. In an organization with declining membership and dwindling sources of foreign finance, this group is likely to command increasing influence. Peter Mokaba's contentions about capitalism's place within the ANC's ideological traditions may have found little favour within the community assembled at Mafikeng but they may not have been so far ahead of their time [see also, on the this point, the accompanying article by Oupa Lehulere - the editors].

* * *

When the history books about the new South Africa are written it is unlikely that the assembly at Mafikeng will be understood as constituting a turning point. Trade unionists signalled that despite their displeasure with the government's commitment to economic liberalism they still have more to gain from partnership within the alliance than opposition outside it. Rank and file delegates in their voting demonstrated an impressive adherence to the ANC's traditional non-racialism, despite this being a more visible part of its life in leadership circles rather than at the grass roots. The ANC leadership were sustained in their conviction that they could continue to function as a liberation movement and not a more sharply defined political party, a house of many mansions, accommodating the rural poor, organized labour, the emerging black "patriotic bourgeoisie" and the rainbow coalition of liberals and radicals which have for so long distinguished it from nationalist movements elsewhere on the continent.


** The various reports cited in this article have been published by the African National Congress under the collective title All Power to the People (Marshalltown, Johannesburg, 1997).

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