The African National Congress: The Rise and Tragic Fall of a Revolutionary Movement

It is widely believed that the 1994 election brought the ANC to power and Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa. Such a view is historical revisionism and diminishes the centrality of the revolutionary struggle. It was the fifty-year struggle that broke the white regime’s capacity to fight that brought on elections and Mandela’s presidency. It was not enlightened and transformed parts of the white regime or the “liberal” West that made this possible. To grasp 1994 and the events afterwards we must understand what came before. After 1948 the ANC and its allies moved to become a revolutionary movement. The revolutionary alliance composed of the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP), Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), was the most extraordinary movement in Africa’s anti-colonial history and one of the great movements of the 20th century.
The colonization of South Africa proceeded in a unique manner, occurring over 250 years. In this time white settlers confronted African resistance, the most well known are the wars of the Zulus, lead by their great military/political leader Shaka Zulu. The British Boer War of 1899 established the British Empire and English settlers as the dominant force in South Africa. In 1948 the Nationalist Party, the Party of Afrikaners (Dutch speaking settlers) took power in an all white election. The system of apartheid (in the Afrikaner language means separation) institutes a new system of white supremacy. This system was defined by its similarities to the US Jim Crow system and the pro Hitler and neo-Nazi declarations of its leaders. All Africans in South Africa were viewed as legal outsiders in their own nation. Africans land was forcefully taken. The wealth of the nation was concentrated in white hands. Blacks were forced to carry the dreaded passbook, live in squalid townships and fictionally independent and resource depleted “Bantustans,” i.e. homelands for the so-called Bantus. It was a police state that rivaled the well-known fascist regimes of the 20th century. The whole system was openly and blatantly white supremacist, that defended the interests of the white minority and foreign mining and banking corporations based in Britain, the US and other European nations.
“It was a police state that rivaled the well-known fascist regimes of the 20th century.”
The first steps of the ANC towards a revolutionary solution to the problems of colonialism, apartheid, black dispossession and labor super-exploitation came with the founding of the ANC Youth league by an insurgent and impatient generation. Among the insurgents were Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, Duma Nokwe and Alfred Nzo. Founding the Youth League represented a break with the old methods associated with the leadership of Chief Albert Luthuli and the generation that sought legal reforms and gradual change in the pre-apartheid system of colonial rule. The insurgent, and soon to be revolutionary generation, were more in tune with the fact that apartheid was a more brutal system than what came before it. They believed, as well, that the international situation after World War II favored their struggle and the tide of African independence would soon engulf all of southern Africa. A good part of this group was either in the South African Communist Party (SACP) or soon to be members and leaders. They would lead the great Defiance Campaign of the 1950’s. It was the leadership of Walter Sisulu that in 1955 called for the Congress of the People, that adopted The Freedom Charter. One hundred and fifty six of the defiance campaigners – among them Mandela, Tambo, Mbeki , Walter Sisulu, Dennis Goldberg, Ruth First and Mac Maharaj – were put on trial in 1956 for treason under the infamous Suppression of Communism Act. A five-year court battle ensued. All were ultimately acquitted.
March 1960 was a turning point in the transformation of the ANC and the movement for freedom in South Africa. The Sharpsville massacre occurred at a demonstration called by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) where 69 unarmed Africans were murdered by the regime. For the ANC a red line had been crossed, making armed struggle decisive to the people’s movement. In 1961 the ANC commits itself to the formation of a military wing – Umkonto weSizwe (the Spear of the Nation). Once committed to people’s war and armed struggle the ANC also committed itself to the armed seizure of power by the people. At the same time that the ANC prepared for peoples war the regime instituted a new Constitution that proclaimed South Africa a white republic, legislating white supremacy and “separate development” for the black majority.
For most of its history the ANC was a movement seeking to change the system of colonialism and apartheid by means of legal protests and reforms. This path was similar to the way most of Africa had achieved independence. Political parties such as the Convention People’s Party in Ghana, Tanganyika African Union, and Kenyan African National Union were examples. Algerians fought a long and bloody armed struggle, but this was the exception. The turn to people’s war would fundamentally change the ANC and its relations to the people and to the regime. New international alliances would have to be developed. New ideological relationships within the ANC and between the ANC and its allies would be necessary. Ideologically and organizationally the ANC was transformed. In the end, the ANC changed from a broad anti-apartheid and anti-colonial movement to a revolutionary party of liberation.
At Morogoro, Tanzania, in 1969 the ANC held its first national consultative conference which quickened the actualization of the ANC as a revolutionary party, committed to toppling the fascist colonial state by armed means. Armed struggle, the Morogoro delegates insisted, would be combined with mass resistance and intensified class conflict in the mines, farms and factories. The Morogoro conference upheld the correctness of the Freedom Charter and its language that South Africa belonged to its people. It called for the return of the resources of the nation to the people and highlighted the centrality of 250 years of African resistance. In substance the Morogoro meeting put the ANC and its allies upon the path towards a revolutionary democracy and a socialist economy.
Morogoro began the final push towards consolidating the unity of anti-apartheid solidarity against the regime. Successive and continued national uprisings followed. The Soweto Uprising of 1976 and the Black Consciousness Movement, personified in Steve Biko, initiated a new moment in the national liberation struggle. The decade long uprising of the 1980’s galvanized by the heroic actions and personality of Winnie Mandela, demonstrated to the South African people and the world their fighting spirit and resolve and undermined the legitimacy of the regime worldwide. After Morogoro few within the movement questioned the need for armed resistance. After the regime’s brutal crushing of the 1976 student uprising, several thousand youth left the country to seek military training. In the 1980’s the uprising increasingly became a people’s armed uprising, taking on the form of people’s war. In this period Umkonto gains the support and confidence of the people and its leader Chris Hani became a national hero. The ANC’s revolutionary slogan of that period was “Make South Africa Ungovernable and Apartheid Unworkable.” As the armed struggle and people’s war intensified so did the class struggle, especially among miners in the gold, silver and platinum mines. The highpoint of the class conflict of this period was the 1986 strike of 300,000 miners. The apartheid economy was shaken to its core. Never in Africa, and seldom anywhere else in the world, had armed struggle and class conflict merged into a mass revolutionary uprising. Side by side with the setbacks for the police and military in the largest townships, Soweto and Alexandra, and attacks upon the puppet Bantustan “governments,” the most powerful colonial army ever assembled in Africa, the South African army, was defeated in Angola in 1988 by a combined force of the Cuban and Angolan armed forces, Umkonto we Sizwe and fighters of SWAPO of Namibia. As a revolutionary party the ANC along with its allies led the struggle to topple apartheid. In so doing it transformed itself and the world’s understanding of the revolutionary potential inherent to the struggle for African liberation.
Freedom was not handed to the people as a gift from a more enlightened and changed white regime and its American and western backers, but came about through unrelenting and bitter struggle. The white regime and its American and European backers raised the white flag and sued for peace negotiations in the late 1980’s. This led to the freedom of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners and the legalization of the ANC, the SACP, PAC and other banned organizations. (For more detail see my previous BAR articles “Nelson Mandela The Contradictions of his Life and Legacies” and “Nelson Mandela, Free Market Capitalism and the Crisis of South Africa.”)
The question that is without a final answer is how did a revolutionary movement get transformed into a bourgeois electoral party along lines of the British Labor Party or the Democratic Party in the US. How did a stellar organization defined by ideologically and politically sophisticated and self sacrificing leadership become a debased and corrupt institution serving as apologists for western transnational banks and mining companies and neoliberal policies? When did the ANC cease being the party of the people, especially the working masses, and become one serving the interests of a parasitic and comprador black petit bourgeois? When did people whom the South African people and the world see as revolutionaries and freedom fighters, such as Thabo Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa become committed to neo-liberal capitalism and a democracy that defends white interests and sacrifices the African working class? Why did the SACP abandon its revolutionary history and adopt a social democratic and reformist worldview, and as a result become apologists for a corrupt capitalist government? Why has the Congress of South African Trade Unions become an ally of a government that is against the working class and the poor?
It seems clear the turning point occurred between roughly 1988 and 1991. Without the deployment of the tremendous moral and political authority of Nelson Mandela in the service of a deal that saved the interests of the white minority and the West the current situation is inconceivable. He and his supporters accepted a deal where elections that made him president would take place, but the seizure of power by the people would not. Whites would give up total power in return for holding on to strategic power, especially in the economy. The substance and subtext of the Mandela symbology contests the call for the revolutionary seizure of power as a mistake and replaces it with the bogus notion of a “Rainbow Nation” and multiculturalism. To claim the moral high ground they proposed a Truth and Reconciliation process rather than trials under international law for the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. Reparations and land redistribution, along with nationalization of the mines, banks and factories are all off the table. A limited democracy prevails and power remains where it was during the height of apartheid. The West deployed every means of propaganda and PR to make Mandela not just a great man, but also a messiah and a savior. At the same time there is the racial and class bribe to the black elite, thereby inventing a tamed and compliant black misleadership class.
“The substance and subtext of the Mandela symbology contests the call for the revolutionary seizure of power as a mistake and replaces it with the bogus notion of a ‘Rainbow Nation’ and multiculturalism.”
A significant, yet little known event in the process of turning the ANC against itself, and ultimately the people, was the publication in the African Communist (the theoretical journal of the SACP) of an essay by the then chairman of the SACP Joe Slovo. The article, “Has Socialism Failed” claimed to be an explanation of the events in the Soviet Union that led to its collapse. He sided with the stance of Mikhail Gorbachev (then General Secretary of the CPSU) that existing socialism was a failure. Slovo said the party should abandon Leninism for Social Democracy (the historical opponent of communism within the international left). In attacking existing socialism as a failure Slovo attacked one of the main pillars of the ANC and the revolutionary alliance. He also called for the abandoning of revolutionary ideology and acceptance of social democracy, elections rather than power and a liberal bourgeois state, rather than people’s power.
Lastly, of major political and symbolic significance was the 1991 demand by the ANC leadership for Umkonto to cease all military operations against the regime. This was literally pulling defeat from the jaws of victory. There were no grounds for undermining Umkonto as a fighting force at a time when the regime and its black puppets continued attacking the people.
The revolutionary offensive of the people after Mandela’s release was called off, and it was argued the black resistance was endangering peace and reconciliation. It was insisted by some that the ANC-led alliance and the great mass of the people were anti-democratic, even “racialists” and therefore had to be toned down and reined in. To the rising black elite and bourgeoisie the masses and their fighting organizations were threats to the “Rainbow Nation.” Through the uses of bourgeois propaganda a new South African narrative was advanced. Through Mandela’s example of reconciliation, it insists, white racists and fascists were suddenly transformed into democrats. F.W. De Klerk, the last white prime minister, and responsible for the murders and imprisonment of thousands of freedom fighters, was given the Nobel Peace Prize and presented as a democrat and anti-apartheid figure. Winnie Mandela, on the other hand, was politically marginalized and demonized as a dangerous outsider and unreasonable radical. In the name of reconciliation no one from the white regime has been tried or gone to jail for what the UN had called crimes against humanity.
When Mandela was released from prison, the three most popular figures in the nation were, Mandela, Winnie Mandel and Chris Hani. Winnie and Chris Hani opposed the new direction of the ANC under Mandela. Hani became chair of the SACP replacing Slovo in 1991 after the party’s leadership rejected Slovo’s anti-revolutionary and social democratic positions. Hani at the time of his assassination in 1993 was the head of two of the most powerful organization in the ANC led alliance, Umkonto and SACP, with huge popular standing. Hani was viewed as a possible future president of South Africa, which would have pushed aside the likes of the pro-capitalist Thabo Mbeki, Cyril Ramaphosa and Jacob Zuma.
The vilest, most ugly, commercialized and corporate aspects of African American “popular culture” are fed to the youth. A generation having little or no memory of the struggle has is being smothered in dehumanizing, misogynistic, homophobic “Black culture.” This is part of the political, cultural and ideological diminishment of the poor and working masses. The new leaders of the nation have a plan to alter the consciousness of the people, replacing images of revolutionaries and resistance fighters with thugs or hyper individualistic and selfish entertainers and clowns. On a daily basis Tyler Perry minstrelsy and Oprah Winfrey imitators are fed to a now confused, leaderless and ideologically disoriented nation. While the majority of black South Africans endure the farce of a “Rainbow Nation,” whites are held responsible for nothing and in return give nothing to the nation while getting wealthier and transferring vast amounts of money to foreign banks and hedge funds. The daily racist insults have somewhat abated, though they still occur far too regularly, but are replaced by new forms of institutionalized white supremacy. White supremacy without the obvious hand of white people is the form of social and political control, which replaces legal apartheid. Indeed, these are cruel ironies that must play havoc upon the collective consciousness of black South Africans.
The path of the ANC from revolutionary party and tribune of the people to the party of government in “the free South Africa” is a story of great sacrifice, struggle and, in the end, a tragedy for the people. The road from the Freedom Charter, to the Morogoro Consultative Conference, to the 1994 elections, to the murder of 34 miners at Mirikana in 2012, is the ANC’s road from revolution to counter-revolution. The road from Chief Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo to Jacob Zuma and the current leadership, is the road from revolutionary sacrifice and commitment to venality, corruption and bootlicking.
Soon after Mandela’s mortal remains were lowered into the ground from which his ancestors sprung the press was filled with accounts of the nation’s largest union, the National Union of Miners, withdrawing its support from the ANC. Other reports tell of Cyril Ramaphosa, former head of the mineworkers union, now billionaire, having called for and signed off on the murders of the 34 miners at Marikana. The South African and international media are filled with stories of President Jacob Zuma’s money deals and multiple wives and girl friends. Every day there are new accounts of corruption and theft by government and ANC officials. And as the world reflects upon Mandela’s legacy the spectacle of white wealth and black poverty and misery haunts the discussions. In the end, we see not a free nation, not a nation united to abolish the past and build an egalitarian future, but a divided nation with a black government that protects white and western wealth and enforces black poverty.
What is South Africa’s future? Can the dream of the Freedom Charter and the Morogoro Conference ever be achieved? To the last question the answer is yes. To the first the answer is that the immediate future for South Africa is a new struggle grounded in the Freedom Charter and the Morogoro Conference. Oliver Tambo in 1969 summed up the spirit of Morogoro, he said, “Close Ranks! This is the order to our people; our youth; the army; to each Umkhonto we Sizwe militant; to all our many supporters the world over. This is the order to our leaders; to all of us. The order that comes from this conference is: Close Ranks and Intensify the Struggle!”

About Anthony Monteiro

I am a activist and scholar who is a professor in the Department of African American Studies at Temple University.
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