SAR, Vol 13 No 2, March 1998
"South Africa Now"
THE ANC'S 50TH NATIONAL CONGRESS:
POWER TO WHOM?
BY DALE T. MCKINLEY
Dale T. McKinley presently works at the Head Office of the South African Communist Party and is author of the recently published book "The ANC and the Liberation Struggle: A Critical Political Biography" (Pluto Press).
After reading local and international press reports on the ANC's 50th National Congress (16 - 20 December 1997), one could be forgiven for thinking there had just been a joyous family reunion in the dusty provincial town of Mafikeng. If only it were that simple. Despite descriptions of the Congress as "miraculous," with delegates emerging "invigorated and united against all odds," the harsh reality is that the ANC - as a political organization representing the majority of South Africans - is more contested than ever, post-Congress appearances and utterances to the contrary notwithstanding.
Like past Congresses, the Mafikeng gathering confirmed that the ANC's "unity" is not predominately derived from ideological or strategic harmony amongst its members. Rather, the "success" of the 50th Congress was the result of the leadership's mastery of political management. Such management was clearly applied in the slick hand-over of leadership from Mandela to Mbeki (something of an obsession of the mainstream press and sections of the progressive international community). However, the real source of the ANC's ability to appear "united," derives from the leadership's power to manage the contradictions between Congress discussions on the one hand and the practical implementation of ANC (governmental) policy as guided by Congress resolutions on the other. The fact that the (ideological) battles around key issues of ANC (as government) economic and political strategy were not reflected in Congress resolutions only serves to confirm the success of the leadership's political management capabilities.
Set against the backdrop of the ANC's two previous "post-apartheid" Congresses (1991 and 1994), the Mafikeng Congress represents, above all, continuity. At both of those gatherings there was heated debate around the political strategies and organizational character of the ANC. For example, at the 1991 Congress most delegates argued the need for a strengthening and consolidation of revolutionary mass mobilization to re-assert the mass-led character of both the ANC and ongoing political negotiation. And yet, watered-down Congress resolutions were followed by little change in the way in which the ANC leadership approached the negotiations. It was just such elite-led political management that contributed decisively to the demobilization of much of the ANC's mass base. In this sense, Mafikeng certainly continues an ANC tradition, but it is not the one that most observers think it is.
Delegates at the Mafikeng Congress have described the debates in the various commissions as "spirited" and "open." Indeed, the ability of the ANC leadership to generate (and more recently to encourage) relatively lively internal debate whilst containing and channelling the political (policy) implications of such debate has always been one of its major strengths. As could be expected of an organization holding the reins of government, discussion at the Congress covering a wide range of issues. And yet, a cursory glance at the resolutions adopted at Congress gives practical content to the old adage that "the more things change, the more they remain the same."
Nowhere is this more clear than in the centrally important Congress resolution dealing with "Economic Transformation." Despite the overwhelming opposition by the majority of the ANC's own constituency to the ANC-led government's neo-Thatcherite macro-economic strategy adopted in 1996 (called Growth, Employment and Redistribution - GEAR), the starting point for the resolution's implementation of economic policy remains "a competitive, fast growing and developing economy." The resolution goes further to state that GEAR "aims at creating the environment of macro-economic balances required for the realization of the RDP" (referring to the Reconstruction and Development Programme formally adopted by the ANC's 1994 Congress). For those with short memories, the RDP explicitly stated that economic "growth" is dependent on the radical redistribution of wealth!
Following a similar path of transforming clear political and policy mandates from Congress participants into often unconnected (and unintelligible) policy, the resolution on "Poverty" offers an interesting version of what needs to be done. It resolves that: "inefficiencies in markets, institutions, spatial structure and delivery mechanisms that prejudice those who are underprivileged should be identified and removed." A strange way of carrying out the core mandate of the ANC to "fundamentally" transform the political economy of the most unequal society in the world. But then again, if the ANC's 50th Congress clarified anything it is that most of the top leadership have wasted little time in becoming avid followers of a technocratic "market democracy" which has little to do with "fundamental transformation."
The "success" of the leadership's political management skills at Mafikeng thus obscured the true political and ideological character of the Congress. As a result, there has been an all-too-predictable concentration on the outcome of leadership challenges and lively, but relatively peripheral debates around the racial and organizational make-up of both the Alliance and the ANC itself. However, much more central politically was the fact that - despite whatever more substantive differences of perspective there might be amongst them - the majority membership of all components of the Alliance (ANC, COSATU, SACP) came to unite around a common theme: that the Alliance must remain intact (at least through the 1999 elections).
Unity ... and Sorosism
But what lay beyond this "politics of the lowest common denominator"? if there is any one event/document that reveals the core strategic-cum-ideological message that emanated from the ANC's 50th congress, it is Mandela's opening presidential report. For it provides the philosophical premises for the existence and functioning of the ANC, as laid down by the leadership before Mafikeng through its actions in governing the country.
Leaving aside the much-publicized attacks on the media, NGO's and rival political organizations contained in the first half of Mandela's report, it is these more philosophical matters that are of central concern. Thus, reading through the report, Congress delegates must have been a bit surprised to find out that it is the views of capitalist financial speculator extraordinaire, George Soros, that now provide philosophical and ideological sustenance to the historic mission of the ANC. Arguing for the need to create a "system according to which the owners of capital would, willingly, understand and accept the idea that business success can no longer be measured solely by reference to profit" Mandela quotes Soros, at length, on "what is to be done":
By taking the conditions of supply and demand as given and [by] checking government intervention, laissez-faire ideology has effectively banished wealth redistribution. Wealth does accumulate in the hands of its owners, and if there is no mechanism for redistribution, the inequities can become intolerable. The laissez-faire argument against income redistribution invokes the doctrine of survival of the fittest. There is something wrong with making the survival of the fittest a guiding principle of civilized society.
As if that were not enough, Mandela proceeded to inform delegates - and an audience of millions more - that Soros' perspectives (including his criticism of the fact that "people increasingly rely on money as the criterion of value"!) were just what was needed for the "moral renewal of our country" and for reaching "our objective of creating a people-centred, humane and caring society." Taking at face value what, in the context of Soros' original writings, is merely a flabby, charity-inflected rationalization for capitalism, Mandela summed up this newly discovered philosophical foundation-stone by throwing out the following challenge to the ANC:
What this all says is that we will have to travel a difficult road before we can truly unite the majority of our people, without regard to race, colour and gender around a common patriotism, one of whose critical elements must be the establishment of a caring society.
As hard as it might be to take seriously the hypocritical philosophizing of a man (Soros) who almost single-handedly ruined the lives of millions of workers in Asia in a frenzy of speculative profiteering, the important point is that the ANC leadership does so. The reason is simply because this leadership views the ANC's mission of carrying out the oft-mentioned "national democratic revolution" as theoretically and practically consistent with capitalism (albeit a capitalism that is at once deracialized and "more humane"). All the debates at Mafikeng, however genuine the intentions of the debaters might have been, were fundamentally concerned with the specifics of how the organization will proceed within this strategic framework. To reiterate: the "success" of the 50th Congress lies precisely in the leadership's ability to politically manage the contradictions inherent in such an undertaking.
What the leadership of the ANC (and sections of other Alliance leaders) can not so easily accomplish though is an extension of these managerial skills beyond the confines of a congress hall. The strategic path chosen (which is, at best, a kind of a rehashed "third world" Keynesianism pursued within the context of an increasingly arrogant and predatory economic imperialism), combined with massive domestic class oppression, ensures that the ANC will remain a battle-zone of ideological contestation. Politically managing the search for a false unity in the face of real contradictions may provide some short-term "success," but it is certainly not a solid basis for giving revolutionary content to the central slogan of the ANC's Strategy and Tactics document: "All Power to the People."
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