The centennial of the ANC: What does it mean for the working class?

As the scorching sun kissed our dehydrated skins, one could not help but feel goose bumps at the thought of being part of history as the oldest liberation movement reached the 100th year mark on Sunday, 8th January. The ANC leadership decided to mark this occasion by spending R100 million ($12. 3 million) on a commemoration that included a huge feast for invited heads of states and several guests, also indulging in celebrity music shows and a golf tournament.

ANC logoFor most of those gathered, their loyalty to the African National Congress was cemented by its history of struggle under the leadership of figures like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Reginald Tambo, Chris Hani and Joe Slovo, to name a few, who endured persecution and incarceration. That struggle, which involved millions of ordinary men and women led to the end of apartheid in 1994, which was seen not only as the end of an undemocratic regime which subjected the majority of South Africans to slavery, but also the opening of an era where the social and economic problems facing the majority of the oppressed would be solved.

Having risen from the ashes of the monstrous apartheid regime, the ANC led South Africa was presented internationally as a beacon of hope and a moral flare to what was known as the “African crisis”. The history of the ANC has in fact always been riddled with the conflict between its middle class leadership and the aspirations of the working class and poor masses which make up its membership.

In this august event we remembered the time when the ANC had its historic Polokwane elective congress in the summer of 2007 when the right-wing leadership around the president Thabo Mbeki was soundly defeated by the mobilization organized by the trade unions, the communists and the youth of the movement. As a result, the liberals defected and formed the Congress of the People, better known as Shikota by the locals. That split reflected the real balance of forces in the movement with the ANC keeping overwhelming support and COPE fading into oblivion.

Looking back at the journey travelled thus far, we have seen the ANC going through several transformations since its formation in 1912 in the Orange Free State, now known only as the Free State. Those who started the organization were native reverends, black academics who had studied mainly in America, and kings whose powers over their ‘subjects’ had been limited by the formation of the Union of South Africa on 31 May, 1910. That organization was one based on petitioning and pleading with the ruling class, not on mobilization and struggle and therefore had no mass appeal.

We then saw an ANC which was mainly for the educated blacks being transformed into a mass based organization which fought for the liberation of the African people as a whole under the slogan of “creating a non-sexist, non-tribalist, democratic and prosperous South Africa”. It was mainly the work of a group of young radicals in the Youth League (formed in 1943) which pushed the ANC to adopt a Programme of Action which had to be fought for by "immediate and active boycott, strike, civil disobedience, non-cooperation and such other means as may bring about the accomplishment and realisation of our aspirations."

This led the ANC to organize the massive Defiance Campaign of 1952 and become involved in leading massive strikes and demonstrations. It was in this period in which the ANC became rooted in the working class and amongst the poor. It was as a result of the pressure of the aspirations of black workers and radical youth that the Freedom Charter was adopted by the Congress of the People in Kliptown in 1955. The Freedom Charter included the famous nationalization clause:

"The National wealth of our country, the heritage of all South Africans, shall be restored to the people; the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole…"

This clause reflected the anti-capitalist aspirations of the masses of workers which had become organized in the ANC, and is one which has caused much controversy in the history of the movement, up to the present day, as middle class and aspiring bourgeois elements have sought to ignore it, water it down or deny its anti-capitalist content. The ruling class at that time was certainly afraid of it and we witnessed the ANC being banned under the Suppression of Communism Act after the ANC had adopted it. In 1994, when they could no longer hold the tide of the massive revolt of the workers and youth, the ruling class insisted in introducing a sunset clause in the Constitution as a defence precisely against the nationalization clause in the Freedom Charter.

Fingers of the same hand are not equal

Over 100,000 people from all walks of life met in Mangaung, formerly known as Bloemfontein, to celebrate this milestone. Some came in buses, trains and taxis while a handful came in their German made SUV’s. What was notable were the disparities between the general membership, some of whom took a 25-hour trip by train and buses, and those who had benefited from the Black Economic Empowerment policy, which has  created a handful of black bourgeois who have reaped the fruits of freedom on behalf of the less connected black working class. These new bourgeois either flew in or had a chauffeur driven ride from the affluent suburbs of Sandton, Constantia, Umhlanga Rocks and Waterkloof.

Many of us arrived in the early hours of the morning and entertained ourselves by singing struggle songs, some of which have been banned by the Gauteng high court, whilst waiting for the sun to come up and proceed into the stadium where our leaders would address us. On the other side of town, the “black diamonds” had all night parties where champagne and other expensive liquor flowed for as long as the sun was not up. These two dissimilar pictures of two social groups that attended the same event left much to the imagination about what the 100th year celebration means for different classes of society.

What does “freedom” mean in a country where 35.7% of its population lives below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate is at 40% and a majority of the population survives on less than $1.25 a day? For the working class it has simply meant the continuity of the struggles against abject poverty which was left untouched by the negotiated democracy, the continuity of the struggles against the commercialization of education wherein universities are driven by the profit making motive and thus exclude those who cannot meet their exorbitant fees, the continuity of the struggles against the commoditization of labour wherein workers are subjected to casualisation and unchecked exploitation, the continuity of the struggles against unequal distribution of wealth and the  continuity of the struggle against the triple oppression of women – namely racialised oppression, class oppression and patriarchal domination.

For the handful of the post-1994 bourgeois, it simply meant the continuity of luxurious consumption, an opportunity to flash their new German sedans and SUV’s in the faces of the hungry masses, an opportunity to confirm so-and-so as their preferred presidential candidate in the upcoming national congress which will be held a stone’s throw away from the stadium where celebrations were held. Basically, to this social group, the centennial celebrations were a big party to celebrate their new found fortunes which have been made possible by the popular struggles of the masses.

The long journey ahead

After 18 years of “democratic capitalism” with ANC governments which have followed market orientated economic policies, we have a racially skewed economy, with white males firmly placed at the top, followed by Indians, coloureds and working class blacks at the bottom of this hierarchy. Even the President of the Republic and also the ANC, has admitted the existence of such disparities. “We have identified the challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequalities”, he said in a lengthy commemoration speech.

There have been some major improvements in some parts of the country, such as improvements in infrastructure, provision of free basic healthcare and the provision of free low cost housing, the increase in the number of people with access to water, an improvement in the provision of sanitation from 50% in 1994 to 77% in 2009, an increase in the provision of electricity from 51% to 73%. But although many have access to these utilities, the fact is that many cannot afford them. This has sparked extensive protests over the price hikes and cut-offs due to non-payment. Not a single week passes without hearing news of protests which are similar to these.

“Poverty and unemployment is indeed eating its way into the stomachs of South African workers and youth. Despite the great wealth beneath the soil of South Africa, the country is placed in the top ten of the most unequal societies in the world according to the Gini coefficient. Almost half the population survives on only 8% of national income. On the other side, in 2009, on average, each of the top 20 paid directors in the JSE-listed companies earned 1728 times the average income of a South African worker” (Ali Nooshini, Reformism or revolution−on the YCL congress..., February 23, 2011)

Secondly, such improvements cannot paper over the fact that none of the central problems of the South African revolution have been solved, neither its democratic tasks nor its socialist ones. The “willing buyer - willing seller” policy for agrarian reform has failed to change anything fundamental. A handful of capitalist agri-businesses control the best land, worked on by one million black labourers in conditions of semi-slavery. White farmers still control 80% of the land, and redistribution and restitution have only affected less than 8% of agricultural land. In summary, genuine and meaningful land reform is not possible within the limits of capitalist property rights.

Although there is no question that emotional support for the ANC, its history and its ideals remain high among a majority of South Africans, anger at the plush lifestyles and evident consumption of many of the ruling elite and their business backers burns powerfully. So does a prevalent sense that the ANC has not delivered on its post-apartheid promise to provide “A Better Future for All”.

The last 18 years of capitalist democracy have shown in practice that none of the aspirations of the masses – those aspirations that they joined the liberation movement to achieve – have been fulfilled and cannot be fulfilled within the straight jacket of the capitalist system. It is an incontrovertible fact that a majority of the population demand the nationalization of the commanding height of the economy (South Africa: the long march to economic freedom). The contradiction which runs throughout the history of the ANC between its middle class pro-bourgeois leadership and the masses of workers, the poor and radical youth which compose its base of support, is today sharper than at any other time in history.

The struggle is to reclaim the best of its traditions, to renew the organization with genuine revolutionary policies, which are the only ones which can provide an answer to the yearning of the masses of our people for a better future, for decent housing, education and healthcare, for jobs and dignity.

In moving the nationalization clause of the Freedom Charter at the Congress of the People in 1955, a trade union delegate from Natal argued for it with the following words, which are today as relevant as then:

"Now comrades, the biggest difficulty we are facing in South Africa is that one of capitalism in all its oppressive measures versus the ordinary people, the ordinary workers in the country. We find in this country, as the mover of the resolution pointed out, the means of production, the factories, the lands, the industries and everything possible are owned by a small group of people who are the capitalists in this country. They skin the people, they live on the fat of the workers and make them work, as a matter of fact in exploitation. They oppress in order to keep them as slaves in the land of their birth. Now friends, this is a very important demand in the Freedom Charter. Now we would like to see a South Africa where the industries, the lands, the big businesses and the mines, and everything that is owned by a small group of people in this country, must be owned by all the people in this country. That is what we demand, this is what we fight for and until we have achieved that we must not rest."

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