Seventeen years on, left strikes again to save ANC

Anthony Butler, Business Day, Johannesburg, 25 March 2008

When future historians begin to ponder the meaning of the battle that unfolded in Polokwane in December last year, their account is likely to start with the first “communist coup” of the post-apartheid African National Congress (ANC).

Seventeen years ago, between July 2 and July 7 1991, the recently unbanned liberation movement held its 48th national conference in Durban. Two thousand delegates carried the aspirations of United Democratic Front (UDF) activists, Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) unionists, former political prisoners, Umkhonto we Sizwe camp veterans, and the leaders of the ANC’s global missions.

Everything was up for grabs, including the internal organisation of the movement. Exile conventions forged during decades of quasimilitary struggle favoured secrecy, hierarchy and obedience. Domestic unions and UDF activists, by contrast, championed a degree of debate and competition for office.

In accordance with exile tradition, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu were elevated into the ANC’s senior leadership. Elders instructed Chris Hani and Thabo Mbeki not to contest the deputy presidency. The incumbent national executive committee expected to be returned more or less unchallenged.

Meanwhile, however, a new left axis had emerged that cut across the boundaries between exile and domestic politics. It comprised UDF and Cosatu leaders in alliance with certain exile cadres from the South African Communist Party (SACP). Its leaders included exiles Joe Slovo and Mac Maharaj, and “internal” activists such as Trevor Manuel, Cheryl Carolus, Popo Molefe and Valli Moosa.

The politics of this alliance were no democrat’s dream, suffused as they were by “entryism”, intimidation and vote rigging.

Nevertheless, internal struggle conventions included debate and avowedly open contests for leadership positions — there were at least votes to rig and co-debaters to intimidate.

The left axis’s successes included Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as secretary-general and Molefe’s near defeat of Jacob Zuma for the position of Ramaphosa’s deputy. The leftists also achieved notable gains in elections for the new national executive committee . After the conference, in a complex putsch, the new allies ousted Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma from control of the transitional negotiations and secured senior portfolios for the left’s candidates. This was the new ANC’s first “communist conspiracy”.

Three reversals then ensued for the left in what was to become an era of conjoined Mbeki and Zuma rule. First, the exile right reconstituted its hold on power as a result of new alliances with domestic conservatives. UDF leaders were dispersed to the provinces and then humiliated. The instigators of the leftist putsch, such as Joe Slovo and Mac Maharaj, were given dead-end cabinet portfolios. Mbeki became state deputy president and then ANC president, and quickly brought in his ideological twin Zuma to serve alongside him.

Second, once Mandela had stepped down in 1999, Mbeki and his supporters refused to recognise the legitimate demands of other factions and tendencies in the ANC to participate in its decision making. The leadership ceased to be a governing coalition able to claim the support of every significant group and tendency within the movement.

Third, a stark division came to separate “outsiders” from Mbeki-faction “insiders”. Outsiders — removed from positions at the centre of government or denied offices to which they felt entitled — formed a reservoir of discontent. Their bitterness was fed by the grievances of a vast constituency let down by government’s public service failings.

Insiders meanwhile preened themselves with insufferable arrogance. One of Mbeki’s spokesmen justified his empowerment riches as a rightful reward for supposed technological acumen invisible to others. Heads of significant public bodies allowed the perception to grow that they were partisans and factionalists. By the end of the Mbeki era, some critics even believed that the most senior judicial positions would soon be allocated according to the state president’s whim.

Such developments might have broken the ANC or tipped it over into a permanent internal authoritarianism. Instead the movement was rescued for a second time last year by a left axis that channeled and organised a wide variety of anti-incumbency forces — now including court-shy outsider and born-again socialist Jacob Zuma.

The 1991 “communist coup” resulted in supposedly Marxist conspirators negotiating SA’s enlightened liberal constitution. The Polokwane triumph of the left is unlikely to be quite so productive. It certainly will not signal a turn towards a “socialist system” because there is no capacity available anywhere in the world — let alone in the SACP or Cosatu — to conceptualise a sustained challenge to private property or to prevailing market-based patterns of distribution.

Historians may eventually conclude that the two communist conspiracies were most ironic victories for the left. The first led to an era of liberal constitutionalism. The second saw erstwhile Leninist revolutionaries rescuing liberal democratic institutions from an Mbeki-ite factional project that threatened to submerge them.

  • Butler teaches public policy at UCT


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