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The choosing of Mafikeng as the location of the 50th conference of the ANC holds metaphorical significance as the party and its members undergo a transformative process. From the birthplace of the first secretary-general, Sol Plaatjie, and nation-wide struggles for equality to the ANC’s exile with the massacres at Sharpville and the student uprisings of the seventies where politics shifted to the streets of the Gauteng region, the town’s image and the party’s history is intricately woven. Today, the elites are‘coming home’ to Mafikeng from their exile. Analogies can also be drawn to the past with current day leadership struggles and IFP accommodation. (dkc)

vol 13 no 2

The ANC's 50th conference: Exiles and homecomings
Oupa Lehulere

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 2, March 1998
Page 12
"South Africa Now"



Oupa Lehulere works as a labour educator for the union support organization, Khanya College, in Johannesburg.

The 50th conference of the African National Congress (ANC) held in December 1997 in the North West Province town of Mafikeng has been billed as the conference of the "changing of the guard." The town of Mafikeng has two claims to fame in South African history.

Firstly, it's known for the siege of the town during the Anglo-Boer war at the turn of the century. It was the compromises struck at the end of that war that led to the exclusion of blacks from South Africa's parliamentary politics for the best part of this century.

Mafikeng's other claim to fame is one that binds it to the history of the ANC and now to its future. The town is the home of the first secretary-general of the ANC, Sol Plaatjie. Plaatjie, a literary man and intellectual, spent the early part of this century campaigning against the land dispossession of the African people. Out of that experience he has left one of the most memorable records of the trauma of dispossession in his classic Native Life in South Africa.

But Plaatjie also represented a particular phase in the evolution of the politics of the ANC. He lived during a period in which the ANC, then a party of (tribal) chiefs and educated Africans, called for equal opportunities for these groups in a world created by rapid industrialization. The political issue of the time was equal opportunity for educated Africans in a world created by the mining magnates, or Randlords, as they were known. It was to this theme that Nelson Mandela, outgoing President of the ANC and soon to be outgoing President of South Africa, returned in his last speech as leader of the ANC. Quoting United States President Lyndon Johnson's speech at Howard University in 1965, President Mandela argued that "we seek not just freedom, but opportunity; not just legal equity, but human ability; not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result."

The Mafikeng conference was one of homecoming to the ANC of the first half of this century - to the ANC of Sol Plaatjie. But homecomings like this one take a long time to prepare.

The road to the Mafikeng conference was paved with political confrontation between Cosatu and the ANC, organizational manoeuvres, and by a process of self-sanitation worthy of the party of the ruling class that the ANC has become.

The ANC adopts GEAR

The runup to the ANC conference generated intense public interest in the deliberations on economic policy. This conference was, after all, the first ANC conference since the government adopted its controversial neo-liberal economic policy known as the Growth, Employment and Redistribution, or GEAR in 1996. When GEAR was adopted, the ANC as an organization was presented with a fait accompli by the ANC cabinet. Indeed, the ANC's highest decision-making body was only convened to endorse GEAR after the government had announced its adoption. It thus came as no surprise that the Eastern Cape, a historical stronghold of the ANC, announced it intended to use this opportunity to question the GEAR strategy.

The rumblings in the ANC were, however, not the principal reason for public interest in the GEAR debate. Three months earlier, the country's largest trade union federation, Cosatu, published a report which called GEAR a programme of "financial capital." At its congress in September, Cosatu leaders and members had a heated exchange with President Nelson Mandela and made clear their rejection of GEAR, a position not held by Cosatu alone. The South African Non-Governmental Organization Coalition added its voice to the rejection of GEAR, and a leading anti-apartheid cleric accused the government of "unleashing a rampant capitalism on an unsuspecting population." All this, and Cosatu's participation at the ANC conference, added up to an expectant mood around the GEAR debate.

As it turned out, the mountain brought forth a molehill. GEAR was adopted by the conference without any serious objections. The leadership's claim that the GEAR was merely a tool to implement the RDP must have played a part in smoothing the adoption, but it was the format of the conference discussions that played the most important role. After a number of presentations to delegates by the Ministers of Finance, of Trade and Industry and of Labour, a request by delegates to hear a presentation by Cosatu on why it rejected GEAR was turned down. Ironically, it was the SACP Deputy General Secretary , Jeremy Cronin, who in his capacity as overall convenor of the resolutions committee, who turned down the request. Without a formulated counterview, Minister of Finance Manuel's view at the conference that "the level of technical detail [of GEAR] ... is of such a nature that it is disempowering for people" became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Imposing leadership from above

The manoeuvres during conference, however, were preceded by manoeuvres outside conference. The runup period saw a determined attempt by the ANC national leadership, and as rumour would have it, by the new ANC president, Thabo Mbeki, to fashion a leadership after its own image. In three provinces - Free State, Northern Province and Gauteng - the national leadership tried to impose its own choice of leaders against resistance by members. In Gauteng, this led to a long drawn out battle, on the one hand, between provincial cabinet ministers supported by the national leadership, and on the other, an overwhelming majority of the provincial membership. After postponing elections, rewriting election rules and orchestrating character assassinations in the press, the candidate of the ANC national leadership lost by a large margin.

Although the national leadership lost the battle, it was able to win the war. In the heat of the battle against attempts to impose new leaders from above, a battle which is by no means unimportant, the political orientation of the people's candidate was lost from view. As it turned out, Gauteng ANC's new leader, Mathole Motshega, does not represent a serious political challenge to the national leadership of the ANC. In a twist of irony, the organizational defeat of the national leadership in Gauteng, as also in the Northern Province, served to confirm its unchallenged political hegemony in the organization.

Notwithstanding their importance, the organizational manoeuvres tell only part of the story of GEAR's adoption, and a secondary one at that. A more important reason was that the ANC that went to conference in 1997 was a much changed one from the ANC of April 1994.

The fusion of the ANC with the state apparatus

Organizational weaknesses, falling membership and non-functioning branches also conspired to smooth the victory of the new right in the ANC. The Eastern Cape province, once the strongest ANC region, had its delegation to the 1997 conference reduced by half (compared to 1994) because of falling membership.

GEAR's passage was not only smoothed by an ill-prepared membership, weak organization and declining membership. It was also smoothed by changes in the fortunes of the membership. When the ANC went to conference in 1991 it had no access to bureaucratic power and privilege. The 1994 conference came too soon after the April elections to reflect changes in membership and local government elections came only in 1995.

In Mafikeng, the number of cell,phones and fancy cars told a different story. So,in evidence was the new elite that an anecdote is told that at one point the air conditioning system in the conference hall failed because the power was overloaded with delegates charging their cellphones! The 1995 local government elections connected the last tier of the organization with the machinery of power. In addition to Members of Parliament, Members of Provincial Parliaments and municipal councillors now also formed a significant part of delegates. With a parliamentary system based on party lists, for the first time in the history of the ANC, leaders at lower levels owed something to those at the top: their positions.

The close synchronization of the ANC with the state apparatus was taken a step further with an amendment to the ANC Constitution that set the conference and the tenure of the national leadership at five years. This was in order that the cycle of ANC conferences would coincide with that of the government.

The fusion with the state, and dependence on it, will be taken a step further by proposals calling for political parties to be funded by government. Given that the ANC already gets substantial funds from external donors, financial independence from its traditional base will ensure that the ANC will be less and less responsive to the needs of the working class.

Recreating the ANC

In the years before the ANC was driven into exile, and before the student uprisings of the 1970s brought into the ANC a generation of militant youth, the ANC had by and large been led by the aspirant black middle classes and (tribal) chiefs. The years of militant mass politics, coupled with the destruction of the black middle class by apartheid, saw many militants from the ranks of the working class ascend to the leadership of the ANC. Now, with the 1997 conference, the pendulum has begun its swing back to the aspirant black middle classes.

The leadership succession was fought out, although largely symbolically, around the national leadership's attempts to prevent Winnie Mandela from running for the Deputy Presidency. The methods used were not only politically vile, but also historically significant. After an intense campaign within the organization to ensure that none of the provincial structures would nominate Winnie Mandela, the national leadership proved that it had learnt from its defeat in the Gauteng leadership battle. At the beginning of the conference, the constitution was amended in a way that prevented Winnie Mandela's nomination from the conference floor. In the pre-conference constitution, 10% of conference delegates could nominate a candidate for high office from the floor. At the beginning of the conference, this figure was raised to 25%. The new president had not been a long-serving member of the politburo of the Communist Party for nothing.

The anti-Winnie campaign reached its height with the hearings by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which were held a few weeks before the conference. These hearings involving Winnie Mandela's activities could not have come at a more opportune time. The hearings, the longest single hearing for an individual, were given full television coverage. By distancing itself from Winnie Mandela's `reign of terror', the ANC was in effect distancing itself from its history of militancy and violent struggle against apartheid. In South Africa's black townships, and indeed among the amnesia-prone ruling classes of the old order, it is common knowledge that Winnie Mandela's strong arm tactics, even against anti-apartheid political opponents, was a feature of the highly charged atmosphere of the 1980s. This combined with the dominance of Stalinist politics to produce the kind of political intolerance that Winnie Mandela was called to answer for. With Winnie Mandela's TRC hearing, the ANC was recreating its image as an organization that is peace-loving, gentle and tolerant.

In any event, Winnie Mandela declined her nomination from the floor, and so the 25% rule was not tested. The significance of the Winnie Mandela saga lies not in whether she represents a serious political challenge to the orientation of the ANC. In fact, she has been unable to offer a serious political critique of the ANC, and has shown her acute lack of understanding of the key issues being debated in South Africa by publicly trying to convince "foreign investors" that she does not represent a threat to them! The significance of this saga lies in the fact that the ANC leadership was sending a strong signal to any potential opposition from the ranks of the traditional leadership that such opposition, no matter what its basis was, will not be tolerated. There was, however, another level at which the Winnie Mandela saga was significant: it was in the choice of methods in sending the signal.

As with Winnie Mandela, so also with Mathole Motshega, digging up old dirt was the preferred political instrument used to fight present battles. This practice forms part of the ANC's inheritance from the old order, and is further evidence of its integration into the South African ruling class. This use of past transgressions found its most celebrated usage in the struggle for succession between the "conservative" faction of the National Party led by B.J. Voster and the "enlightened" faction led by P.W. Botha in the late 1970s. With methods like this, the ANC is not only going back to the politics of accommodation with the capitalist ruling classes; the ANC is being `culturally' integrated into the politics of the old ruling class.

Besides returning all the cabinet ministers, the composition of the new National Executive Council incorporated not one serious critique of the ANC in government. In the desperate search for a "left faction," the only representative that the local media could find was ... Terror Lekota. On the contrary, the leadership elections revealed the delegates' comfort with the new elite. The country's leading black businessman, ex-ANC secretary Cyril Ramaphosa, was returned with the highest votes. And Ramaphosa is not alone in this achievement; many ANC MPs and leaders, or their relatives as proxy for them, are being integrated into many corporate boardrooms and directorships in South Africa. It is this integration that accounts for the stench of "gravy train" scandals that engulfs the South African nation at the moment.

Like so much of the conference, the leadership struggles and elections, represented a return to Sol Plaatjie's ANC - here too we had a kind of homecoming.

The IFP coming home?

Next to the sustained uprisings by blacks in the 1980s, a prominent feature of black politics was the violent struggles between ANC supporting organizations and the Inkatha Freedom Party, led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi. These struggles, and their toll in human lives, continued right up the 1994 elections and beyond. But it had not always been so. Indeed, the IFP was the creation of the ANC in exile.

Even after being driven into exile by the apartheid government, the ANC did not abandon its politics of accommodation. Even as the black trade union movement rose in the early 1970s, the ANC turned its attention to the bantustan leader Buthelezi, and this led to the formation of what is now the IFP. According to ANC strategists at the time, the IFP was to utilize the bantustan structures - dummy governments for blacks set up by the apartheid government - to advance the struggle for majority rule. The student uprisings of 1976 sounded the death knell for this policy.

The 1976 generation swelled the ranks of the ANC and they brought with them a total rejection of anything associated with the apartheid government - and this included Mangosuthu Buthelezi and his party. The break-up of relations with the ANC in 1979 ushered in the bloody war that was to be a landmark of black politics in the 1980s.

The 1997 conference marked a return to the pre1979 period. In a speech that delivered a tongue-lashing to all opposition parties, in particular the white parties of the old order, President Nelson Mandela singled the IFP out for praise. Indeed, in the runup to the conference, senior ANC leaders in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, Buthelezi's stronghold, waxed lyrical that "when ... Buthelezi ... says publicly that we need to unite ... we know that the spirit of Dube and Luthuli [former ANC presidents] is stirring." At the conference itself, President Mandela personally introduced the IFP delegate to loud applause. Beyond the conference, the ANC public is being prepared for a possible merger of the two organizations, and the accession of Mangosuthu Buthelezi to the position of Deputy President of South Africa under an ANC government.

For the IFP, too, the 1997 conference represented a kind of homecoming, even if the road is just beginning.

Exiles and homecomings

From its beginnings as an organization of elites and chiefs in the early part of this century, the ANC dedicated itself in policy and practice to pleading with white authority to admit educated Africans into the world the Randlords made. The end of this phase began with the massacre of 69 Africans at Sharpville, which led to the ANC being driven into exile. The radicalization which began in the 1950s was completed with the student uprisings in 1976. From then on, the centre of ANC politics shifted away from deputations to the dusty streets of the country's industrial metropole: the Gauteng region, and to its industrial proletariat.

The ANC's return from exile, and the release of the leaders incarcerated on Robben Island, was the beginning of exile from its politics of exile. It is significant that since its return from exile, not one of the ANC's three conferences have been held in what is without doubt the country's most important region: Gauteng. As with Leningrad and Shanghai, physical distance from the centres of the militant proletariat is a sure sign that the elites have began coming home from the austere, hard and militant exile. At Mafikeng, the ANC elites completed their homecoming.

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